We are fast approaching the close of the Church year, and throughout the month of November, the readings that we hear proclaimed at Mass remind us of the “last things” — death, resurrection, the last judgment and our final fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. During this time of year, the Church helps us to reflect upon life, death and the world to come. In the beginning of November, we celebrated All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, reminding us that we are in communion with the living and the dead.
During this time of year, we become ever more conscious that we are a pilgrim people. “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen gentium) of the Second Vatican Council refers to the Church as a “pilgrim Church.” We are a pilgrim people, ever in need of conversion and renewal as we make our way to our final destination:
“Already the final age of the world is with us (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11) and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way — it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on Earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect. However, until there be realized new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells (cf. 2 Peter 3:13) the pilgrim Church, in its sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and she herself takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail yet and await the revelation of the sons of God (cf. Romans 8: 19-22).” (Lumen gentium, 48)
A pilgrimage, of course, is not about wandering aimlessly; it is a journey with a purpose. We live in this world with an understanding that we are not meant to be here forever. We are on a journey to the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God. We are an imperfect people in need of God’s transforming love, and we are on our way to our ultimate fulfillment. It is a journey that requires faith, prayer, a realization of our need for God’s mercy and a willingness to extend that mercy to others.
Closely connected to the theme of transformation and renewal is the idea of redemptive suffering: St. Paul understood a truth that all of us in one way or another can relate to — that suffering plays a role in our personal and communal conversion and transformation. While suffering is not a good thing in itself, the way we deal with it in our lives can have transforming effects. We work through our experiences of suffering knowing that it is not the end of the story for us. As Christians, we direct our lives to becoming a new creation and living in union with God.
Of all of St. Paul’s writings, his Second Letter to the Corinthians is his most personal. This letter deals with crises that arose within the Corinthian Church. As St. Paul addresses these problems, he begins to reflect upon his relationship with the community in Corinth, and he expresses his thoughts openly and honestly. He both vents his frustrations and expresses his affection for the community.
Chapter 5 of this letter deals with our future destiny with God, the resurrection of the body, and the tension between the present and the future. St. Paul encourages the Christian community to be courageous: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Throughout the letter, St. Paul speaks about suffering, and reflects on the redemptive dimensions of suffering for the sake of the Good News. Here, St. Paul refers to his own suffering, in which there is always some element of salvation. His experiences of suffering are not experiences that end with him but have an effect for the good of the community. Redemption is a radical transformation, taking the people out of a sinful mode of being, and introducing them to the reality that is Christ. Christ initiated the work of redemption, and all who minister to the Gospel are involved in the work of reconciliation, bringing others to God. Chapter 5 of this letter emphasizes how a person’s deeds affect the lives and actions of others.
In the faith community, there are communal responsibilities. The baptized must be involved in the ministry of reconciling the world to God. St. Paul writes:
“So, whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So, we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
As the Church year comes to a close, it is a good time for each person to reflect on the following questions:
“What role have my sufferings had in shaping my faith life and the way I treat other people? How have the trials and challenges in my own life proved to be redemptive suffering as I grew in my relationship to God and as a member of the Christian community? What does it mean for me to be a new creation in Christ?”
We are all in need of God’s transforming love. God’s love heals us and makes us whole. We who struggle with our sufferings in this life find consolation as we put our trust in the one who creates us anew.