In Sunday Catechism a month ago, a precocious nine year old Sara, after reading the story of St. Barbara, asked, “Why did the parents get mad when the daughter became a Catholic? And want to kill her?” The legend of St Barbara (d.306) is striking. She was a beautiful girl, whose father Dioscuros was so angered at her conversion to the Catholic faith, that he locked her in a tower. When Barbara had a third window built in her tower, to honor the Blessed Trinity, her father turned her over to the procurator, and finally beheaded her for her faith. On his way home, Dioscuros was struck by lightning. Every U.S. Marine knows St. Barbara’s story, because she is the patroness of the artillery. They even call their bomb-detectors “babs” in her honor.
Discussing Sara’s question, three thoughts came to mind. First, that the very life of a righteous man is a rebuke to the sinner (Prov 29:27; Eccl 1:32). When one is not living a good life and knows it, even the sight of a person who is (especially if it is someone continually present) increases feelings of guilt, which can even lead to anger.
Second, sometimes when people encounter something they do not understand–a mystery–it makes them uncomfortable, afraid or angry. Our faith is full of mysteries! That God would become a baby, would die and rise again. That what looks like a piece of bread is actually truly Jesus. Often, we think we ought to be able to understand everything, but of course the mysteries of our faith are too high for us to understand completely.
Finally, a more spiritual answer, why did Barbara–why does every Christian–suffer, sometimes even to martyrdom? Because Jesus suffered and since we love Him, we have to expect to suffer, so that we can imitate Him and become close to Him. So actually, though paradoxically, suffering should give us real joy, since it lets us know that we are close to Jesus, and on the right side of the battle.
An element of Sara’s question that we did not discuss in class, but that so many have been asking this year is, “Why does my suffering have to be so close, so painful, as even to be difficulties in my own family?” Whether it is illness, death, financial instability, or even a family misunderstanding in this year of somewhat shorter fuses, when the source of suffering is close to home, the pain is that much more acute. Our Lord felt it Himself, and said so. He speaks to us from the Good Friday Liturgy: “My people, what have I done to Thee? Or wherein have I afflicted thee? Answer me. Because I led thee out of the land of Egypt, thou hast prepared a Cross for thy Savior.” And He laments: “I was wounded in the house of them that love me” (Zech 13:6).
Why then is it that this year so many faithful Catholics are carrying heavy burdens close to heart? I found the beginning of a response in Saint Francis de Sales’ description of the Precious Blood of Jesus. He writes, “Let us love one another heartily. …Our Lord upon the Cross shed the last drops of His precious Blood upon the earth, as it were to make thereby a sacred mortar with which He would cement, conjoin, and attach to one another the faithful, who are the stones of His Church, in order that this union might be so strong that there should never be any division therein...” (“Cordiality.” In Conferences, 54-73. Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1945.) Our Lord’s agony was wrung from Him in the house of them that loved Him, and the same source that made His suffering so bitter, made the flowing-out of His Blood so potent a bond for unity, charity, salvation.
In the same eternal moment that His blood dropped down from His side on Calvary, the Precious Blood of Jesus is lifted up at the Elevation of the Mass. Paused in that moment, Heaven and Earth stand still to adore God’s love made visible, and we find meaning, joy, and then resolve. If we drop a few drops of acute suffering with Our Lord this year, this Lent, especially in the midst of our nearest and dearest, with how much confidence can we expect Jesus to unite our sufferings to His, and thus to sanctify our families and our Church, bound together as we are by His Precious Blood? Sustained by the Eucharist, a prayer of thanksgiving and even of joy rises up, that Our Lord counts us members of the Church as His friends, worthy to share His suffering.
Pondering Sara’s question of martyrdom, and the acute and prevalent suffering-with-Christ of many Christians, and the Passion of Jesus during this season of Lent, the reflection keeps returning to and flowing out from the Precious Blood of Jesus.