“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints.” (Colossians 1:24-26)
This passage, tucked away in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, is perhaps one of the most mysteries passages in the entire New Testament. Nevertheless, I think that if one could take just a little time here to uncover its meaning, he would find a valuable lesson for the season of Lent.
The nagging question is: What could still be lacking in the suffering of Christ? He suffered to the fullest extent, and for all mankind. When He died and rose from the dead, he defeated sin and death and won for us all the grace we need to be saved. This victory, which we call the “objective redemption,” has a quality and completeness that is without question.
But, there is still something lacking. What is still required is the application of the grace of the Cross upon us. The overabundant fount of grace that Jesus won for us is of no benefit if there is no way for us to drink from that fount, to receive or gain access to that grace. This application of the grace of the Cross is called the “subjective redemption.” Any time we celebrate any of the sacraments, for example, the grace of the Cross is applied to us and we experience this redemption. We know that this application is necessary because if it wasn’t, then everyone would have been instantly saved as soon as Jesus said, “It is finished.” But, we’re not.
So, we have thus far established what is lacking. The grace of the Cross must still be applied to us. Now, St. Paul tells us in the passage from Colossians that one way to make up for what is lacking is by taking up our Cross just as Jesus Christ took up His (cf. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Suffering for the sake of the Body is meritorious. It is a good deed that is rewarded by grace, and all such deeds serve to build up the Body of Christ.
This explains why St. Paul would rejoice in his suffering, and see this as something that he did for the sake of the Church (cf. Colossians 1:24). He knows that when he suffers for the Gospel, to fulfill the duties of the “divine office” given to him (cf. Colossians 1:25), he builds up the Body of Christ and becomes a minister of the grace that flows from the Cross. Elsewhere, St. Paul said, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). He is a steward of God’s grace for the benefit of others (cf. Ephesians 3:2).
If one is to follow St. Paul’s example, he must ask a final question: What bit of sacrifice or suffering can I offer up for those who need it? It could be something as simple as parking in the farthest spot and offering up the small sacrifice of a long walk in the rain or snow for those who are homebound or who cannot walk at all. It could be something more difficult, like putting in a hard day’s work, even when your back hurts and you’re not sure if you can move another inch. This world is filled with suffering. Sometimes we may choose willingly to take it on. Other times it is unavoidable and beyond our control. All of it can be patiently endured for the sake of the members of the Body of Christ.
In this season of Lent, may we all follow St. Paul’s example, embracing the suffering of the Cross and building each other up as we walk along the way that leads to Easter.