By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
A certain hesitation grips me whenever an elderly person asks me, a young priest, for advice, whether spiritual or practical. My usual response is to remind him or her that I have no well of personal experience to draw from, and thus my counsel is little more than a priestly whippersnapper’s detached musings on the matter of aging.
I recently realized, however, that Jesus himself never experienced the privilege and burden of growing old. The occasion for this observation was my reading of Colossians 1:24, a notoriously difficult passage to interpret. The verse runs thus: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” This passage is eyebrow-raising for its apparent assertion that an aspect of Christ’s sacrificial death is deficient, or in need of completion by a lesser man, such as Paul. At the very least, the apostle’s puzzling statement invites his readers to ponder the manner in which he (and we) experience, and even extend, the afflictions of Christ through all times and places.
Paul is undoubtedly aware that the self-offering of Christ on Calvary is indeed perfect, and nothing his sinful self does could possibly fill any “gap” in the redemption accomplished through Christ’s passion. We must remember, though, that Christ suffered at a concrete place and time (Jerusalem in the first century A.D.), and that history has moved forward from the crucifixion, with innumerable tragedies and miseries inflicted upon so many people, Christians and non-Christians alike. Paul seems to understand that the mystery of grace allows his own sufferings “in his flesh” to be united with those of Christ on the cross. He also notes that the unfolding word of God (mentioned in v. 25) requires a willingness on our part to bring the afflictions of Christ to bear in our own bodies, in new historical circumstances unacquainted with the redeeming presence of Christ’s pierced-heart love.
While Colossians 1 says nothing specifically about old age with regard to the sufferings of Christ, I believe the passage offers a wonderful consolation to the elderly as they struggle to accept the diminishments and losses of their waning years. One of the great gifts Scripture grants us is a flexibility to stretch the sacred words to cover the breadth and length of our spiritual needs. In this case, the elderly may perceive their sufferings as completing, in some small but very real way, the afflictions which Christ himself never experienced in his flesh.
Such an understanding of one’s suffering, I imagine, can be quite transformative, for it requires the person to see their own suffering as a healing remedy for the body of Christ, the Church. When approached as a means of shouldering the cross of Christ, the sorrow and sense of abandonment so common in the elderly cease to be absurd, because the eyes of faith allow them to perceive that they are suffering in a way Christ never did. While the elderly may not “rejoice” in their pains as Paul does, they may come to accept their 11th-hour crosses as a gift which they can return to God for the good of others, who might not know how to suffer gracefully.
Pascal has a beautiful phrase in connection with Colossians 1:24: “Jesus is in agony until the end of the world,” meaning that he still suffers through his body, the Church. This would mean (to my mind, at least) that Jesus suffers in a unique way through the elderly, whose experiences he never lived firsthand in his earthly ministry. It must also mean that the greatest blessings bestowed by God are granted to those men and women, withered in body but refreshed in spirit, who share in a hidden mystery reserved only to a select few: those who persevere serenely and confidently to the end, and point young and old alike to the coming prize whose radiance no eye is capable of beholding this side of the sunset.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column will appear occasionally in The Texas Catholic.