In the Arena

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.”*

I’m sitting before the Christmas tree, covered in blankets and lost in thought.

The tree has the look of a faded Hollywood beauty. A beauty that once turned heads but now gets barely a nod, her time passed, replaced by another. Cookies are stale, their formerly bright frosting dull and grainy. The New Year has come, the old year is tired and gone. 

Two weeks ago I sat before a tree that was fresh and vibrant, sparkling with Christmas beauty. In front of this same tree I was invited into the extraordinary pain of another. I sat and I cried, almost undone. It is an awful and wonderful privilege to be invited into the pain of another. And yet, there is a cost. Sharing and bearing the pain of another does not come without a price tag.

My tears have dried like the branches of the tree. Now comes the hard work of healing. Pain is not healed overnight. Our emotions don’t magically disappear, replaced by false happiness.

My theology should fare well under pain, I think to myself. Is not Christ my example? Christ, the Suffering Servant? Christ – the one who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities?

In the second century, a slave  named Felicity was imprisoned for being a Christian. She was a slave of Perpetua, a wealthy woman who was also a Christian and had discipled Felicity. Both were young women and on their imprisonment they lost everything. Perpetua was put into a part of the prison reserved for the wealthy, the only ones who had relatives wealthy enough to bribe the guards, ensuring better treatment of their loved ones. Felicity remained in the worst part of the prison, that part reserved for slaves.

Perpetua had a baby and Felicity was pregnant.

Both were sentenced to die in the arena, sentenced to die a martyr’s death unless they renounced their faith.  Before the time came for them to be put in the arena, Felicity gave birth. On seeing how much pain she was in during labor and childbirth, the guards mocked her-how would she stand the arena, they wondered, when something like childbirth caused her so much pain.

“Now I am the one who is suffering,” Felicity said “but in the arena, Another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.”

Felicity knew that in the arena God would not leave her, that he would be fully present bearing her pain.

You and I are unlikely to die the death of a martyr, but we do battle daily in the spiritual arena.  Daily we face wild beasts and lions, often disguised as benign pets. These arenas can cause extraordinary spiritual pain. And we are sometimes called into the arena of another. Called to love, called to fight for them, called to walk with them, called to help them bear the pain. Called to be reminders of the presence of God. In the words of my dear friend Lois, we are “given the calling of ministering grace in painful and profound ways.”

In the Arena, another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.” The words of Felicity, spoken so long ago, are a profound challenge to which I prayerfully respond: May it be so, Lord Jesus. May it be so. 

*Frederick Buechner