In one of the most unusual of St. Paul’s statements we hear the following:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… (Colossians 1:24)
There are mysteries within mysteries in St. Paul’s statement (particularly if one does not accept the idea of “merits” – an extra-Biblical term). What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions?
I do not think we may speak of anything that is insufficient in Christ’s sufferings. Rather, there is the incompleteness in what we are invited to share with Him.
In another place St. Paul says this about Christ’s sufferings:
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share [koinonia] his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11). Emphasis added.
This is yet another place where Christ recognizes our share [koinonia] in the sufferings of Christ. It is obvious that the martyrs have such a share. However, it is also true that those who labor for and pray for and endure for the Body of Christ have a koinonia in those sufferings as well. It is simply a fulfillment of the commandment to “love one another even as I have loved you.”
This is, as noted, one of the deep mysteries of our life in Christ. It is the mystery of the depth of love in which our care for one another would lead us even to suffer for one another. Much of that suffering is quite invisible to those around. It is the patience we practice towards one another, the refraining from judgment, and the forgiving of sins when no forgiveness has been sought. It is, above all, prayer in which we do not pray “from above” but “from below,” esteeming those for whom we pray to be greater than ourselves. It is taking the road of the Cross with Christ down into the depths of the earth and there proclaiming resurrection to all.
In an even deeper union, the sins of others become part of our koinonia. I do not see a great distinction between their sins and mine. Indeed I pray for forgiveness for all, knowing that, in the koinonia of Christ’s sufferings, I bear the sins of all.
The mystical union of all undergirds the prayers of the Three Young Men in the furnace. In Daniel 3:26ff (LXX) we read the prayer of Azariah (Meshach). A righteous young man suffering as an innocent, he prays as though he bears the sins of all the people:
Blessed are You and praiseworthy, O Lord, the God of our fathers. And praised and glorified is Your name unto the ages. For you are righteous in all You did for us. And all Your works are true. Your ways are upright, And all Your judgments are true. The judgments You made are true, according to all You brought on us and on the holy city of our fathers, because in truth and judgment You did all these things on account of our sins. For we sinned and acted lawlessly to depart from You. We sinned in every way, and did not obey Your commandments. Neither did we treasure or do as You commanded, that it might go well with us.
Later he will pray:
Do not put us to shame, but deal with us according to Your kindness and according to the abundance of Your mercy. Deliver us by Your wondrous works and give glory to Your name, O Lord. May all those who inflict evils upon Your servants be put to shame and humiliated in their power; and let their strength be crushed. Let them know that You alone are the Lord God and glorious over all the inhabited earth.
Here he does not pray about the “sins our fathers committed,” but the “sins we committed.” He has taken upon himself the koinonia of their sufferings.
It is the teaching found in The Brothers Karamazov: Each man is guilty of the sins of all. And this is a great mystery and a beginning of prayer.