Christmas 1 – Year A
What does it mean to be made perfect through "suffering"?
Try this – The word translated as "suffering" here is "pathema". It is a presumed derivative of "pathos" which can be heard as:
1. whatever befalls one, whether it be sad or joyous
a. spec. a calamity, mishap, evil, affliction
2. a feeling which the mind suffers
a. an affliction of the mind, emotion, passion
b. passionate deed
c. used by the Greeks in either a good or bad sense
d. in the NT in a bad sense, depraved passion, vile passions
Pathos, in turn, may be from the root "pascho":
1. to be affected or have been affected, to feel, have a sensible experience, to undergo
a. in a good sense, to be well off, in good case
b. in a bad sense, to suffer sadly, be in a bad plight
i. of a sick person
To push back through we can hear this suffering as a negative (bad, depraved, sick), positive (to be well off), or descriptively (whatever, to simply feel or experience).
Here we might say that Jesus was made whole through his experiences, his feeling the realities around him and beyond him.
This sense of wholeness, healed-ness, salvation is experience-based, not doctrine-based. Jesus, and those who draw near to G*D through his experience, appreciate his appreciation of his experience of what befalls everyone in the process of living. Therefore mercy is a key response to life. It is experienced life that draws us together (atonement, if you will).
"Suffering" has gotten a bad rap when it has only been seen in a negative light. I'm not sure the word can be redeemed from centuries of one-sided use. This might mean that we need to refrain from its use, or find a longer descriptor to say what we really mean because it can only be heard negatively, regardless of how we intended it.
To demonstrate this, see how hard it is to read this passage in terms of mutual identity through experience rather than one-way loss/sacrifice taking over another's experience.
Or, can you read this in terms of "passionate deeds" rather than through purgation? "Jesus (and those who follow his way) are made whole through passionate deeds." Does this say what needs to be said to move us off center of idolizing some second person of a three-person crowd?
Another approach to this is to look at the Indo-European root of the word "suffer" – "bher" which means to carry or to bear children. Here, too we might try putting it this way, "Jesus was made whole through birthing in others the ability to bear G*D". Might this be difficult/suffering? Yes. Might this be simply-the-way-life-is/suffering? Yes. Might this be participating-in-mercy/suffering? Yes.
Blessings upon you in this Christmas time to begin bearing on your own tongue better descriptors of salvation – difficult, simply-the-way-life-is, merciful – rather than falling back on the inadequacy of using "suffering" language.