He was born to die on a cross. That was his destiny. The “word made flesh” came to Earth as an infant whose mother was a poor, humble virgin. He was born on Christmas day and was murdered 33 years later.
During his short life, did he ever learn what it was like to suffer? Did he ever experience hunger? Did he know anything about disease and pandemics? Was he ever forced to endure the extreme and debilitating pain of a migraine headache? Did he ever experience humiliation, degradation, torture, or betrayal?
Why would the Son of God allow himself to experience the massive pain and suffering that he was forced to endure? Was it because he wanted to make sure that you and I could never say to him, “You don’t understand what I’m going through” or “If you would walk a mile in my shoes, then maybe you would understand what I’m going through?”
Would you voluntarily take his place knowing that you would be tortured and then nailed to a cross where you would die three hours later in the presence of your mother?
I recently listened to an audio recording of a talk that Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen gave to a group of people during the latter years of his life. In his talk, he told a story about a woman he had previously met who was confined to an iron lung that enclosed her entire body (except for her head).
Have you ever heard of an iron lung? Wikipedia.org provides this definition:
A mechanical respirator which encloses most of a person’s body, and varies the air pressure in the enclosed space, to stimulate breathing. It assists breathing when muscle control is lost, or the work of breathing exceeds the person’s ability. Need for this treatment may result from diseases including polio and botulism and certain poisons.
The iron lung, which was also known as a “tank ventilator,” eventually became obsolete as a result of modern medicine and technology, which replaced it with more advanced breathing therapies and machines.
The story that Archbishop Sheen told about the woman was so compelling that I wanted to share it with you. Here’s what he said:
About two years ago, I was giving a lecture in a theater in Florida. There were about 5,000 people in the theater. The lights over the audience were rather dim. I was on a stage that was fully lighted. I could see from the stage some wheelchairs in front of the seats, and I resolved while I was speaking that I was going to go down and speak to the people in the wheelchairs.
After the lecture, I jumped off the stage and spoke to them. I noticed over at the side of the theater, against a wall, something that looked like a Grecian statue. It was a woman in an iron lung. She was completely swathed in white. I could not see any arms. Her whole body was wrapped.
I walked over to her and she said, “I’m a convert of yours.” I said, “I’ve never seen you before.” She told me that she had learned about the Catholic faith by reading some of my books. I asked, “How long have you been in the iron lung? She said, “21 years. I was married and I contracted polio shortly after I was married, and my husband left me. As he left the house, he pulled out the electric plug that supplied air to my iron lung. Fortunately a servant saw it, so I was able to stay alive.
I asked, “Do you understand your suffering?” She said, “No, not completely.” I said, “I shall remain in touch with you for six months and write to you until you begin to understand it.” She said, “Tell me something now.” I responded, “Sometimes lovers squeeze too tight, and the Lord loves you and squeezed you too tight. For most of us, he just raises his hand in blessing. Sometimes he lays his hand on certain souls and his hand is scarred, and he leaves a scar, and it is a pledge of eternal salvation and redemption.”
After Archbishop Sheen finished telling the story about the woman, he talked about the Book of Job and the extreme suffering that God allowed Job to go through. Sheen said that despite the extensive suffering that Job endured, which included the loss of his children, his property, and everything that he owned, he remained faithful to God. In the end, God rewarded Job abundantly for his faithfulness.
Sheen emphasized that one of the primary lessons that we can learn from the Book of Job is that regardless of the extent of suffering that we are allowed to experience, God expects us to stay faithful to him and to continue to do whatever we can to enhance our relationship with him.
Another thing that Sheen said that caught my attention was when he told his audience that if any of them ever needed a good counselor, they should keep in mind that “counselors who have never taken the cross are not worth listening to.” He went on to say that there are only to two types of people that a person should go to for counseling: a counselor who is holy, or a counselor “who has suffered in union with the cross.”
When I heard Sheen’s advice about how to select a good counselor, it occurred to me that the greatest human counselor of all time was the Mother of God. Why? Because in addition to meeting Sheen’s two criteria for being a good counselor, according to Catholic tradition, her heart was so aligned with the heart of Jesus that she endured every form of suffering that Jesus was forced to endure.
Using Sheen’s analogy, she was squeezed by our Lord more tightly than anyone else has ever been squeezed. She didn’t just receive a scar from his hand, she received every blow, cut, and scar that he received.
The greatest counselor of all time — the Mother of God — was given to each of us as our own spiritual mother moments before our Lord took his last breath. Here’s how Saint John the apostle recorded the event:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19:26-27.
According to several of the Doctors of the Church — saints who have been recognized as having made a significant contribution to Catholic doctrine and theology — when Jesus made that statement, Mary was no longer only his mother, but she was, from that moment forward, also the spiritual mother of each of us — a perfect mother we could depend on and turn to any time that we were in need.
The Mother of God was and still is a perfect counselor that our Lord lovingly gave to each of us as our own spiritual mother. She has the power and authority — given to her by Almighty God — to assist us in all our needs.
For those of us who are devoted to her, in addition to providing us with the guidance, support, and comfort that we need, she will continually help us develop a greater love for Jesus. She will also help us become more like him.
On that Christmas day more than 2,000 years ago, we received two eternal gifts: the Son of God who opened the gates of Heaven for us after he died on the cross and rose from the dead, and a perfect spiritual mother and counselor who would watch over, guide, and protect us, and would teach us how to know, love, and serve our Lord in this world, and be happy with him in his Kingdom for all eternity.