Fool, why do you embrace your cross?
I ask myself this a thousand times a day, though more often in the reverse: fool, why don't you embrace your cross?
The contradiction, the irrationality, the scandal of the cross goes against our fallen nature. There is nothing so unsavory and so uncomfortable as the embrace of suffering, indeed, it is our common striving to avoid suffering that often unites us in our failure to live as He did.
This theology of suffering belongs to that aspect of Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) which is most easily dismissed and misunderstood as sadism. What kind of a God are we worshipping here, anyway? If He's not personally causing our suffering, then He is, at the very least, standing back in grim satisfaction observing our reaction to hard times, extracting remedial obedience for the sins of our ancestors.
Right? This is a reasonable and concise explanation of Christianity, is it not? I mean, as Catholic Christians, we don't just accept suffering, we invite it! We throw our arms open and welcome it, shouting "bring it on, is this the best you got?" And the more hell we go through on earth, the less we have to fear of that hot place in the afterlife.
Except that's not it at all. Our suffering, borne with whatever level of decorum or indignity we choose, is not efficacious on its own. We can't "earn" our way into God's good graces by suffering admirably... our suffering, on its own, is meaningless.
Divorced from the redemptive and restorative suffering at Calvary, human pain and hardship still sucks, but that's all it does. You see, He didn't step into the drama of human history simply to pay a debt to the demanding Father who's keeping tabs from up above. He restored balance to the universe we threw off kilter in the Garden, repairing the tear we rent in the fabric of reality. Our suffering, however great or small, has no meaning of its own apart from the Cross.
Jesus suffered because He had to and because He wanted to, knowing that only His perfect and sinless acceptance of the burden of the natural consequences of sin (disorder) could restore reality (order) to creation. Jesus didn't suffer because God the Father is a sadist. Jesus suffered because something happened in the Garden; in our rejection of reality we distanced ourselves from the God who loves us, preferring our way to His, and embracing an alternate existence of pain and heartache which He never intended but which He will allow us to persevere towards, should we so choose.
It all comes back to free will- ours and His -and that beautiful collision when they intersected in a Man 2,000 years ago. On that cross, on that hill, His free choice redeemed our free choice, restoring order to the universe.