Mardi Gras: Lean into Lent 3

It was the first Mardi Gras after Katrina and, we did not know at the time, our last before heading to Penn State. Our departmental staff assistant had a house right on St. Charles and so we joined our colleagues there every year for the parades. One little girl was lifted up on the shoulders of our department head to give her a better view and access to beads. She is now 17 and we certainly could not get her on our shoulders without serious damage to one or both of us.

A lot has changed in 9 years for us and for New Orleans. Not everything is for the better, but this is the inexorable nature of life. It continues to move on, no matter how hard we try and hold back the tide.

Mardi Gras is “Fat Tuesday” a day of excess before contrition and dedication that is supposed to follow on Ash Wednesday. This month I have been leading a Sunday school class at the local Presbyterian church on “Sacrifice and Atonement” as a means of preparing us for Lent and hopefully to help provide us with a better understanding of Good Friday. E and I have been reading the Magnificat as a daily devotion. It is obviously an RC source, but the reflections and devotions are often quite insightful and in the lead up to Lent they have focused quite a bit on healing, suffering, and sacrifice.

In one meditation on the problem of evil, Fr. Kevin O’Reilly commented that

Suffering, when accepted in faith and in unity with Christ on the cross, can earn indescribable graces of healing and salvation for us and others. …the unrivaled power to bring solace to those who suffer: that Christ’s suffering won our salvation and that we can share in his redemptive work by uniting our suffering to his.

I suspect, as a good protestant, that there is some theology behind this statement that were Fr. O’Reilly and I to sit down and talk about it I might disagree with, but that having been said, it has driven me to some fruitful contemplation.

I have often said with respect to the loss of innocents like my son that I do not believe that God as caused such tragedies to happen for some “larger purpose” that we don’t yet understand. On the other hand, I do believe that we can redeem these tragedies through our responses to them or, perhaps to put it another way, by allowing God to do so after the fact, with our agency.

Yet I do not think this is what O’Reilly means when he writes about our sharing “in his redemptive work by uniting our suffering to his.” At the same time, I am not sure that I understand what he means at all, at least in any sort of mechanistic way. If my salvation has been won through Christ’s suffering and sacrifice (I know, a hotly debated topic in its own right) then how can my suffering contribute to that redemptive work? It would suggest that my salvation is not complete without some suffering of my own.

On the other hand, I certainly know that I have a different and new appreciation for sacrifice and suffering today than I had two and a half years ago. As my wife said in a recent essay, Lent is often about doing without in order to remind ourselves that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” We live in Lent all the time now, we do not need any reminders of our mortality.

It seems to me it is the work that I do to try and overcome the suffering that brings change, healing, and (perhaps) redemption. Suffering without a point is just suffering. So perhaps this is redemption in the sense not of freedom from sin, saving grace, but rather freedom to continue to live with Mack. I am not saved through my suffering, but our loss of Mack can be transformed, redeemed. We benefit from that ourselves, it is grace to us, in that the burden is easier to carry, it helps us to find new paths forward than the ones we had hoped to walk with our complete family, it enables us to “live fully beyond” his death. Thus it is redeemed.



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3 thoughts on “Mardi Gras: Lean into Lent

  • Rickwright67

    Sorry about the delay in leaving a comment. Been busy with my mom who was visiting this past week.

    I have at least a couple thoughts that are not necessarily disagreement (which I know you do not mind and can handle). With you I am not entirely sure what O’Reilly means. And also lean toward believing we work with God to redeem what happens after(?) the fact rather than saying God causes(?) instances of loss and suffering for some great purpose. God is not a monster. With the Orthodox we confess that God is good and loves mankind. Although I am still haunted by the question of whether he allows(?) such instances of loss and suffering. And more importantly whether the redemption-after-the-fact and allows-for-a-greater-purpose are mutually exclusive. I see this particularly in The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien in the “Ainulindale” when Eru first allows(?) Melkor to mar the music of the Ainur and then somehow redeems(?) the music. This is my first thought.

    My second thought is to ask what we mean by salvation. I am also haunted by a saying from Orthodox Christianity (whose source I cannot recall) that “all things are for our salvation”. Many Protestant Christians are beginning to recognize that salvation is both an event and also a *process* (of healing and transformation). So in one sense the redemptive work of Christ is complete and does not require anything else such as our own experience of suffering. But in another sense our salvation is not complete. And yes maybe somehow our experience of suffering plays a role in that process of salvation. Or perhaps it does not play a role so much as the suffering is a consequence that arises out of the ongoing work of redemption. The last several months I have been trying to get my head around Romans 8 especially what Paul says about how creation groans and we groan with it (and how that passage sits within the theological matrix of the entire epistle). And the last few weeks how the story of the Transfiguration (glory and power!) in the gospel of Mark seems to sit at the intersection of baptism (hope!) and crucifixion (weakness and suffering?!?). I do not pretend to understand if or how that explains what your family has experienced. When you write “I am not saved through my suffering, but our loss of Mack can be transformed, redeemed” I guess I am trying to suggest that maybe we *are* saved through our suffering (if by saved we also mean the process of healing and transformation that Protestants often label sanctification). And (taking into account Romans 8) even that others can experience salvation through our experience (and response to) suffering. And that this process transforms and redeems our experiences of loss and suffering.

    These are raw thoughts. I am still working through all this. I do think it is important to take into account salvation as a process as well as an event.

    • Christian Brady Post author


      As usual there is little disagreement between the two of us. [For those who do not know, Dr. Wright was the first one to teach me biblical Hebrew. We have been friends since we were undergraduates at Cornell.] I too am haunted, but think it inescapable that God allows loss and suffering. It happens, he has the capacity to intervene in history, or at least so the Bible testifies, yet rarely seems to do so. I am not sure how we can get around that. The conflict, I think, is when we take an “all or nothing” approach to God’s activity. That is, either God cannot and never has intervened in human affairs or God is capable and always should/does when merited. Yet the instances cited in the Bible are very few and far between when we consider the full scope of human history (or even biblical history!). The story of Gen. 3 is that humanity has been exiled from God’s presence. Ever since his direct intervention has been sparing, to say the least.

      The key is whether or not there is intentionality on God’s part. Yes, we can see lack of interference/allowing suffering as being intentional, but it is really a matter of the emphasis. That is to say, if we assume that God’s “default” position is not to interfere, then not healing is part of the norm, not an exception to God’s behavior. (After all, miracles wouldn’t be miraculous if they always occurred. If we had the recipe, pray this way and God will heal, then it would just be another science.) It is the intervention then that has to be intentional rather than the passivity. God “allows” the death in the same manner that he has allowed all creation to continue to exist. He did not spare Mack’s life in the same way that all creation does, for now, suffer and die.

      Whether the “allows-for-greater-purpose” (volitional) and the “redemption-after-the-fact” are not mutually exclusive, certainly. But as I suggest above, the former is rare, the latter is necessary for spiritual health.

      On this next topic of salvation I remember a conversation you and I had now almost 30 years ago in the loft of the Straight. I certainly agree that we “have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved.” Thus in that sense I can see how one can say that we are “participating in our salvation through suffering.” Perhaps this is what O’Reilly had in mind. Our salvation is assured, but we have a long road to go and God uses our experiences (and choices) to shape and mold us along the way.

      Romans 8 is a great connection to make:

      18   I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

      Just a side comment, as it were, that Paul’s language of “granting” evokes the language of the prophets who often say that a nation or the world will groan as a woman in labour before the Day of the Lord comes upon the world. In a non-sterile world of births in hospitals the image of childbirth would be pregnant (couldn’t help myself) and obvious to the original audience. It also reminds us that new life doesn’t come into this world without pain and often the birth of a child is accompanied by the death of the mother… This bears further reflection.

      So to return to this discussion of salvation, and we are getting waist deep into semantics here, but it is important, I still wouldn’t say that I am saved “through” my suffering, rather that I am saved through faith in Christ’s sacrifice. Yet, if I allow it, God is helping me to understand that sacrifice and suffering while molding and making me ever more into his image through these experiences. I am made human through my birth from my mother. The sort of human I am is determined by my experiences and my reactions to them. These experiences do not make me a human, but they do inform my humanity. Does that analogy work?

      • Rick67

        Thank you for such an excellent reply. I appreciate especially your point that for God to “intervene” (or to use biblical language, to save, redeem, restore, and so on) is more exceptional. Expanding on your reference to Genesis 3, I can bring in Athanasius, who would say not so much we are exiled from God’s presence but we have come under the power and dominion of chaos, corruption, sin, and death. (Wright interprets Romans much along those same lines.) The analogy I often use (recently) is that human beings said “we would rather turn away from you, rule ourselves, and go live over there” – where it so happens ISIS is in control. God did not “punish” us by sending ISIS against us, he told us straight up what would happen if we ate from that dang tree, and now we live under ISIS control. Then we complain that God does not seem to act in order to stop beheadings, defenestrations, destruction, and so on. Rather we should be deeply grateful for the times that God – for reasons we do not always understand, so the theological problem remains – carries out missions “behind enemy lines” and saves, rescues people in various ways. I think your perspective makes much sense.

        On the issue of salvation “through”(?) suffering… your analogy is excellent but I think I still lean toward saying we are (yes) saved through faith in Christ’s sacrifice (justification – and regeneration?)… and saved (healed and transformed – santification) at least partly through our experiences of loss and suffering. I could be wrong, and I value greatly your thoughts on this, which prompt me to reflect and reconsider. At the very least (and I think this is part of your point) we experience loss and suffering as a consequence (or by-product) of being people saved by faith in Christ… who still live in a broken world under the dominion of corruption and the forces of death.

        Glory to God for you, your family, and this discussion.