We are now on the second Sunday of the four Sundays of Advent, and today we hear the great voice of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is the cousin of Jesus and the precursor of the Messiah.
He led an ascetic life in the wilderness, clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey.
He preached repentance to the surrounding communities to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
A man alone in the desert with no worldly possessions and was naked before the whole world, John came with a powerful but simple message: “Get ready for the coming of the Lord. Make open your hearts to receive him.”
For St. Pope John Paul II, the message of Advent is that of love. He advocated uncompromisingly the need to give human beings the deepest value. And from this flowed everything.
Much like John the Baptist, St. John Paul II was also the prophet of our generation. He like the Baptist courageously fought for what he believed was right, mindless of the consequence.
It is no secret that in his youth and early on in his pontificate, JP2 was a picture of health and athleticism.
However, in 1981, he almost fell from an assassin’s bullet but survived only by a hair’s breadth which the pope attributed to the intervention of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In the early 90s, a series of health problems began to overtake the aging pontiff. In 1992, the pope had colon surgery, involving the removal of a noncancerous tumor. The next year he fell and dislocated a shoulder.
In 1994, John Paul suffered a broken femur in another fall. An appendectomy followed in 1996.
During these years, moreover, a Parkinson-like condition, if not the disease itself, began to reveal its visible effects. At this point, he was clearly entering the part of his life’s journey marked by failing health and suffering.
As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, would describe him: “The pain is written on his face. His figure is bent, and he needs to support himself on his pastoral staff. He leans on the cross, on the crucifix….”
In his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, John Paul meditates on human suffering in the light of the cross of Christ.
Its theme was suffering in general in the light of the cross and salvific or redemptive suffering in particular.
According to him without a God, suffering would be simply an added cruelty to an already absurd and accidental existence.
But in Salvifici Doloris, John Paul asserts that suffering, in reality, is not only the gateway to strength and to hope, but it also has a divine meaning, lifting, therefore, our own sufferings into a kind of glory.
God created humanity in a relationship (“man and woman, he created them”) and with the purpose of eternally praising God in creation.
However, in Eden, the serpent undermined our relationships with God and each other.
That led to strife, toil and eventual death.
In the Old Testament, death essentially paralyzes the person. In She’ol, the dead merely exist; disembodied, they can no longer praise God or work in creation.
John Paul discerns three principal things that are good within the evils of suffering:
First, suffering happens to us individually, but properly engaged, it leads us to communion and solidarity.
Second, suffering is a temporal experience, but if it is temporal, we can recognize that we are meant for eternal life, which Christ mercifully offers to us.
Third, suffering is linked to hope and to love. But God’s love is so great that he became incarnate, took on human suffering (“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”) and suffered the dissolution of his body.
But whereas Adam and Eve died of disobedience, Christ “emptied himself” and was obedient, even to death on the cross, thus winning salvation.
Most powerfully, Christ’s resurrection reveals that these—these broken relationships, suffering, death itself—are temporary for those who have been saved by Christ and given themselves to him.
Suffering will end in an eternal and loving embrace. And death itself will relinquish its sting.
In these times of uncertainty for me, contemplating my own sickness, suffering, and death, I am consoled by the final words of John Paul in Salvifici Doloris:
“Thus to share in the sufferings of Christ is, at the same time, to suffer for the kingdom of God. In the eyes of the just God, before His judgment, those who share in the suffering of Christ become worthy of this kingdom.
“Through their sufferings, in a certain sense they repay the infinite price of the passion and death of Christ, which became the price of our Redemption: at this price the kingdom of God has been consolidated anew in human history, becoming the definitive prospect of man’s earthly existence.
“Christ has led us into this kingdom through His suffering. And also through suffering those surrounded by the mystery of Christ’s Redemption became mature enough to enter this kingdom.”
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