“Now when John had heard in prison the works of Christ: sending two of his disciples he said to him: Art thou he that art to come, or look we for another? And Jesus making answer said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
The wonderful works of Christ mentioned in these first lines of today’s Gospel, point to the omnipotence of God, as demonstrated in the many miracles and cures performed for all to see. Yet St. John the Baptist hears of these things from prison - a place not associated with joyous occasions or considerations of the awestriking power of God.
Commenting on these lines, St. Alphonsus Ligouri notes that John’s imprisonment is a time of great grace and joy. “In tribulations God enriches his beloved souls with the greatest graces. Great indeed are the advantages of tribulations. The Lord sends them to us, not because he wishes our misfortune, but because he desires our welfare.”
Ligouri uses this second Sunday of Advent as an occasion to draw attention to the advantages of tribulations, a timely meditation for the liturgical season. He notes that tribulations are not merely trials to be grudgingly put up with, but gifts given from on high for our sanctification and perfection.
The saint continues: “Hence, when they come upon us we must embrace them with thanksgiving, and must not only resign ourselves to the divine will, but must also rejoice that God treats us as he treated his Son Jesus Christ, whose life, upon this earth was always full of tribulation.”
What are the advantages to be gained from such tribulations then? How is it that Advent in particular is to be a time of grace, as was the prison for St. John the Baptist?
In his sermon St. Alphonsus outlines many benefits of tribulations, as well as the means by which one is to bear them. To begin with, experiencing trials allows one to see that which he could not see before, to understand that which was previously incomprehensible. Tribulation “opens the eyes which prosperity had kept shut,” says the saint. Suffering through sorrows and pains of this life, also allow one to understand more of the passion and death endured by Christ for our sake.
Next, tribulation “takes from our hearts all affections to earthly things.” Through undergoing the purification of trials, writes the saint, one learns to have a healthy dislike for the things of this world, and cling to the goods of Heaven instead. “God,” says St. Augustine, “mingles bitterness with earthly pleasures, that we may seek another felicity, whose sweetness does not deceive.”
Third in his list, Ligouri notes that those who have no trials or tribulations are often attacked by the temptations which spring from their riches. With power, fame and wealth as one’s favoured goods, it is harder to leave these aside for that which really matters. Here is where trials come as a blessing, for they do away with the temptations which naturally emanate from such a life, and force one to live supported by the providence of God. They “make us humble and content in the state in which the Lord has placed us,” according to St. Alphonsus.
Following on from this, the saint explains that tribulations are a better way by which to atone for sin, than by voluntary penance imposed by ourselves. Voluntary works of penance, no matter how great, are still voluntary, chosen by oneself. Yet tribulations come without one’s control and often against one’s wishes. The sacrifice involved in submitting to such things is joined to the humble acceptance of the tribulation itself as an atonement for sin. “Oh! how great is the efficacy of tribulation in healing the wounds caused by our sins.” Ligouri draws our attention to St. Paul’s words also - “we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience.” (Rom 5:3)
Tribulations have an ability to focus the mind on God in a manner quite unique. Whilst undergoing the suffering in each particular trial, a soul is faced with the choice to either turn to God or to turn away from Him. Only by turning to Him, can one properly bear and embrace the trial and consequently turn it into a grace, in the manner of St. John in prison. Hence St. Alphonsus writes that trials convince us “that God alone is able and willing to relieve us in our miseries, tribulations remind us of him, and compel us to have recourse to his mercy.”
Lastly, the great saint points out that tribulations are a means by which one might gain merit before the throne of God, grow in humility, patience, submission to the will of God and die to self. Tribulations demonstrate the lack of control which one has over the world, and point him towards God, in whom he must find his only security. Ligouri records the words of St. John d’Avila, “that a single blessed be God: in adversity, is worth more than a thousand acts in prosperity.”
Bearing crosses patiently is a way in which to prepare a crown for oneself in heaven, according to Ligouri’s words. Indeed he points out that we ought not to even seek a reward for humbly accepting such trials, for is it not right and just that we receive sorrows as well as joys? “If we have gladly received from God the goods of this Earth, why should we not receive more cheerfully tribulations, which are far more useful to us than worldly prosperity?”
Yet despite not deserving a reward, God does indeed reward those souls who remain faithful to Him throughout persecutions, sufferings and tribulations. Temptations become for these souls, not a path to death and destruction, but a path to virtue and sanctification. Just as the prison was a time of grace for St. John the Baptist despite its hardships, so can tribulations be for those who accept them in loving union with God. “Who bear these temptations with patience, and banish them by turning to God for help, shall acquire great merit.”
Indeed, tribulations are a gift - a gift which the world cannot understand, for to do so requires the light of grace. “In fine, the scourges of Heaven are sent not for our injury, but for our good.” They are the source of sanctification and union with God.
“When we see a sinner in tribulation in this life, we may infer that God wishes to have mercy on him in the next, and that he exchanges eternal for temporal chastisement. But miserable the sinner whom the Lord does not punish in this life! For those whom he does not chastise here, he treasures up his wrath, and for them he reserves eternal chastisement.”
Trials are even a sign of favour found with God: “The man whom the Lord afflicts in this life has a certain proof that he is dear to God.” ‘And,’ said the angel to Tobias, ‘because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptations should prove thee.’ (Tob 12:13.) Hence, St. James pronounces blessed the man who is afflicted: ‘because after he shall have been proved by tribulation, he will receive the crown of life’.” (James 1:12.)
As Advent continues at pace, may these words of St. Alphonsus Ligouri serve as a guide for the remainder of the preparation for Christmas. May the next few weeks be a virtual prison, one akin to that of St. John, so that we may emerge at Christmas time strengthened in the path of virtue, but preferably non-decapitated.