I think I have commented, once or twice, on that very difficult passage from Colossians in which St Paul says that in his flesh, that is, in his own sufferings, he is “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (1:24). It’s difficult, I think, for two main reasons: it seems he is saying that somehow Christ’s own sufferings for us were not complete, and that there’s something about our sufferings that can complete them! The first reason might seem to imply a lack of faith on our part, and the second a lack of humility. In any case, the foundations of Christianity seem to tremble at the very suggestion that the redemption wrought for us by the Passion of Christ is lacking in anything.
I received an insight into this mystery from a passage in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Salvifici Doloris, which was quoted in Fr Jonathan Morris’ book, The Promise. I’ll reproduce the passage here and then let you know how it helped me see things more clearly.
“Does this [i.e., St Paul’s words cited above] mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. In this dimension—the dimension of love—the Redemption, which has already been completely accomplished, is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits, but at the same time he did not bring it to a close. In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so.”
Now I must confess that at first glance it seemed like the Pope was merely engaging in a bit of semantic play. The Redemption is complete, but not brought to a close; it has been accomplished, but it is still being accomplished. It was the last sentence, though, that brought it into greater clarity. We can understand the Redemption as being “complete but not brought to a close” or “having been accomplished but still being accomplished” if that open-endedness which our own sufferings can “fill up” is itself an essential element of the Redemption.
That would mean that it was the will of Christ that one element of his “finished work” on the Cross would be the possibility or capacity of this work to be “always open to all love expressed in human suffering.” Thus in the actual doing of the thing, in accomplishing the work of redemption, the Lord was establishing a perpetual openness to the members of his Body, the Church, who could actually unite themselves (not merely as a wish or pious fiction) to his sufferings by means of their own, in faith and in love.
To look at it that way helps, I think, to explain the difficulty of something “lacking” in Christ’s sufferings that we can “fill up.” The “lack” does not imply something defective or inadequate in Jesus’ sufferings, but rather a latency or potentiality that can be actualized by the offerings of the members of his Body—for our sake, not for his. Jesus doesn’t have to do anything more to redeem us; it is done. But through our own freely offered sufferings, we can actively share in what He has done, because part of what He has done was to create this very openness to our participation! This doesn’t mean Jesus needed our participation in order to do his saving work in the first place. It only means that the actual doing of his saving work made it possible for the members of his Body to share in the power and grace and fruitfulness of it—in all times and places, until He returns in glory. In this way the Lord imparts a meaning and a value to human suffering that it would never have if He Himself had not endured the Cross for our salvation. It shows how much He understands and even honors what we have to endure in this land of exile and of pain. Having suffered Himself, He knows what it costs. His making it possible for us to “fill up what is lacking” shows how much He wants to be one with us in our sufferings—if only we would seek to be one with Him in his sufferings! It should be a great consolation to us that “Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so.”
It is not, then, a useless act or a mere spiritual anodyne to “offer up” what we suffer, and to “unite” our sufferings to those of Christ. There’s something real there, something that can be powerful and fruitful both for ourselves and “for the sake of his body, the church.” St Paul knew that. Pope John Paul knew that. Perhaps it’s time for us to know it as well, in the depths of our own suffering souls and bodies. “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1Peter 4:13). There’s an opening for our contribution, our participation, in the redemptive suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He has willed it so. As Fr Morris notes: “God loves to involve us in his divine work. He turns spectators into players. This is his idea of Church.”