It’s been a common refrain on social media to lament 2016. The meme holds that this year, unlike all others, is the year we set back humanity either through our collective ineptitude or through untimely departures. After these last twelve months the world has become more unpredictable thanks to Brexit and Trump. Suffering has multiplied before our eyes with the images of Aleppo or climate scientists on the run. The list of deceased seems to never end: Ali, Scalia, Wilder, Fischer, George, Prince, Bowie etc. This year ends with the world poorer than when it began. It is not good.
And I get it. 2016 wasn’t the best of years for me either. In fact, I remember the exact low moment. It happened in the middle of May. My daughter had come down with the stomach flu two days earlier. In a span of five minutes, my poor wife was hunched over the toilet while my son ralphed on my daughter’s carpet, and she, being sick, tucked her cute face into a tiny green bucket. Oh, and I’d just gotten off the phone with the car mechanic who slapped me with an unavoidable $2,700 bill. I distinctly remember thinking, “This. This is the low point of my married life.”
Honestly, the rest of my year wasn’t much better. My wife and I experienced a lot of “for worse” and “for poorer” this year.
And still, I can’t bring myself to indulge in this year-ending, social media, group therapy session. For one, I find myself without the time to reflect on how this year’s events rank against those of years past. I teach history to middle school and high school students. There are plenty of years — thanks to plagues, pestilences, and politicians — that truly sucked for humanity. Where in all that 2016 stands I haven’t a clue.
But the Christian belief in the mystery of the intersection between suffering and grace hasn’t changed:
God is infinitely good and all His works are good. Yet no one can escape the experience of suffering or the evils in nature which seem to be linked to the limitations proper to creatures: and above all to the question of moral evil. Where does evil come from? “I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution”, said St. Augustine, and his own painful quest would only be resolved by his conversion to the living God. For “the mystery of lawlessness” is clarified only in the light of the “mystery of our religion”.The revelation of divine love in Christ manifested at the same time the extent of evil and the superabundance of grace. We must therefore approach the question of the origin of evil by fixing the eyes of our faith on Him who alone is its conqueror.
As the Catechism so eloquently puts it, amidst suffering we are called to fix “the eyes of our faith on him who alone is its conqueror.” This call to encounter grace brings my eyes back to the Cross. It’s a devotion for Catholics to have at least one crucifix in the house, if not one in each bedroom or more. As the world on social media constantly reminding us how 2016 sucked, we Catholics gaze again and again upon the image of the cross: God executed, 30 AD. Can this year really top that one?
The comparison is not the point. We should neither be stoics who pretend the hurt and pain don’t exist nor blind optimists who say naively, “There, there, it will get better.” Rather we should embrace life as human beings, who in moments of hurt have the outstretched hands of Our Lord awaiting our encounter with His grace. This encounter does not guarantee consolation or improvement. Rather it is a reminder that in suffering Jesus Christ experienced in His person the pain of our common humanity.
Wouldn’t it be fitting if in suffering we saw a first invitation to encounter His divinity? And so it is. In 2016 we’re at least reminded that we’ve had it too good for too long.