Suffering: Holy Week

Diego Velasquez's (1599-1660) "Christ on the Cross"
Diego Velasquez’s (1599-1660) “Christ on the Cross”

Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, starts with Palm Sunday (commemorating Jesus’s return to Jerusalem, when palm leaves were placed in his path) and includes Spy Wednesday (associated with Judas’s betrayal of Christ), Holy Thursday (the day of Jesus’s last supper with the apostles), Good Friday (when Jesus was crucified) and Holy Saturday (which mostly, it seems, has the status of the last day of Lent).

Growing up Catholic, Holy Week meant many things to me–the impending arrival of Easter, of course, with its obligate (and much loved) new clothes (imagine: four girls, new suits, socks, shoes and hats, every year!), coloring Easter eggs and searching for them on Easter morning, lots of candy. But it wasn’t all fluff: Holy Week was also a reminder of Jesus’s suffering and in that way a reminder of suffering in the world.

Catholics display the crucifix (as depicted, above, in Diego Velasquez’s magnificent  “Christ on the Cross”) in their churches and in religious necklaces while Protestants tend to exhibit only a bare cross. I’m not sure if there is an attendant affect and/or reverence of suffering among Catholics vs. other Chrisitians, but in some ways that is, I think, the stereotype. “Offer it up to God,” means, according to my mother’s wisdom, to bear your burdens as a sacrifice, as a kind of good-faith effort to God.

This may well be may be a uniquely Catholic sentiment. According to

Roman Catholics believe that a person’s actions play a significant role in one’s standing with God because actions are external expressions of one’s inner faith. For Catholics, good deeds can achieve penance for sins or limit one’s time in Purgatory after death.

Protestants believe that justification by grace through faith is the only way for a person to enjoy a righteous standing before God. In this view, good works are done out of gratitude and are seen as a result of faith, but alone can earn no merit with God. Catholics believe this as well but continue to emphasize works as demonstrations of faith.

So if you’re Catholic, you get to try harder. And when you try hard but things still get screwed up, you suffer. When God sees you suffer, you hope it will elicit His mercy.

Is hope, like crucifixes and suffering, a particularly Catholic construct? What would Protestants hope for, if it’s never about being recognized for the best you can do? Is “justification by grace through faith” really the only way a person be saved? Can any of my Protestant associates out there help me better understand this? I have to say, the “in-crowd”/”out-crowd” aspect of it, the “Well, if you’re like that then obviously you’ve missed the boat” idea feels a bit deterministic to me.

Last week I wrote about hope. I worry I was a little heavy-handed about the whole concept. After all, hope is no antidote to suffering. You can hope all you want and cars still break down even when you can’t afford to repair or replace them. You can wake up cheery and still go to bed overwhelmed with disappointment about a job you didn’t get, about a college or graduate school admission you were denied. You can be the world’s biggest optimist and still get your heart broken. All of which happened, last week, to people in my family, and friends, whom I love.

In good Catholic fashion, it passed through my head and heart that for my carelessness and insensitivity in writing about hope as some kind of panacea, some kind of easily-drawn-upon resource, if only you’d get your act together!–people I love were made to suffer. Because you really can’t have it both ways, right? If good works get you a nod from God, well, he’s also going to punish the bad. The thoughtless. The vain. The inconsiderate.

I can see where the Protestants decided to have a Reformation.

Suffering exists in the world and I think it’s a fair thing to say we don’t know why. Why it’s you this week and me the next. Why hatred is legislated, why children in foster homes are abused, why college students jump off bridges high above the Mississippi River. These are all examples from only this morning’s paper. Tomorrow there will be more.

My husband is a physician–a pathologist–whose specialty is, literally, the study of suffering. He says he’s going to have a few words with the folks at the pearly gates when he arrives, words about what all this suffering was about. Until then, I suppose, we are charged with managing suffering as we can. Our own, and that of the people we love.

Jesus, it seems, did that, too.

Happy Easter to everybody. May you be visited by the gift of hope, and may hope trump suffering for you and yours every day of Holy Week and all the weeks to come.








  1. Oh my goodness Donna–you’re one of the deepest thinkers I know. And I it’s likely my comments will come up short. But here goes…

    First, I think protestant crosses are bare to shift the focus from Friday’s suffering to Sunday’s hope, a risen Christ, a triumph over suffering and death.
    Second, thank goodness for justification through faith alone and good works flowing out of that faith. Because otherwise, how would I ever know if I were “good enough”? This can lead to endless self doubt, worship of suffering and self abuse. And If my good deeds are a way to chase favor, than my primary concern is my own well-being. And thinking I have such power to save myself seems to diminish the cleansing work of Christ’s crucifixion. But, actually I think the whole faith/works argument is a chicken and egg debate.
    Third, we know why suffering exists in the world… a long time ago in a garden far away, some folks who thought they knew better than God, listened to a lie and brought suffering into the world. But Christ paid the price of atonement and Sunday is coming. And each of our good works don’t necessarily help to save us individually, but hopefully help bring about His kingdom come, bringing the world back to its intended state, a world without suffering.
    Finally, when it comes to questioning undue suffering, I submit myself in meditative prayer over words from the final chapters of Job, when the Lord speaks and asks Job if he was there when the earth’s foundations were formed…
    We spoke before about wrestling with spiritual questions and this is for sure a biggie. But at the end of the day, I’m reminded that I answer to a Holy God who loves his creation. And I HOPE (not wish) for a restoration of his creation and an end to all suffering. Praise be to God.
    Thanks so much Donna for wrestling alongside your readers. Your honesty and insight is a gift. Happy Easter!

    1. Good morning, Angela, and thank you so much for taking the time to answer my sincere questions. I’m obviously wrestling with these Catholic/Protestant differences, and I think you hit the nail on the head with the issue of never knowing if we’re good enough, and how when this is the biggest question it leads to the worship of suffering and self-abuse. I think Catholics do this. I think I do this. And clearly, as I worked my way through my own thoughts in this post, reliance on good works means also reliance on bad works (which we are bound to do) and then to the ridiculous notion that we could ever be “good enough” for God. So what you Protestants have decided (literally, I think, in your Reformation) is to try to put an end to this currying of favor with God. Have faith, you say, and you will be saved. And your faith is sometimes demonstrated through good works, but not for your own “points.” The good works are to hope to bring us all to the vision God has for us, but it’s not a tit for tat (if you’ll excuse the expression) thing. How am I doing? I am so grateful for your help here, my friend.

  2. So, Donna, on Wednesday, 4/15, we need about 2 hours for spirituality and faith, about 2 hours for parenting, children and our parents, about 2 hours for social issues and legislation of them, about 4 hours for reading, writing, about 2 hours for . . . Cheryl thinks we might need some mathematical structure to our visit, better yet: More visits. Can’t wait. Cheryl P.S. Thanks for “Hope” and “Suffering” and “Parenting” and everything I have read from you. I’m glad you are blogging.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *