6TH SUNDAY B 2012
Mary Mallon was forcibly held in isolation for three years and later quarantined on
Mallon’s experience was not unlike that of the lepers of Jesus’ day.
Fear of exclusion and abandonment is central to our human condition. Billions of dollars are spent each year in the attempt to make sure that human beings remain accepted. Whatever the current form of leprosy might be, we can buy some kind of treatment. It might be stylish clothing, a new make-over of face or hair. This can be done easily if one has a portion of those billions. Yet these are merely cosmetic. The human condition, our finite reality, cannot be disguised. There are physical illnesses that money cannot cover-up. There are deeper, non-physical, interior sickness for which money is completely useless.
The mystery of suffering: God gives us freedom and unlike most everyone else, refuses to violate it, even when it would seem beneficial to do so. That leaves us in a lot of pain at times, but, as Jesus reveals, God is not so much a rescuing God as a redeeming one. God does not protect us from pain, but instead enters it and ultimately redeems it. That might sound simplistic in the face of real death and evil, but it is not.
We see a powerful illustration of this in Jesus' reaction to the death of Lazarus. In essence, this is how the Gospels tell that story:
The sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, send a message to Jesus telling him that "the man you love" is gravely ill. Curiously though Jesus does not immediately rush off to see Lazarus. Instead he stays where he is for two more days, until Lazarus is dead, and then sets off to see him. When he arrives near the house, he is met by Martha who says to him: "If you had been here, my brother would not have died!" Basically her question is: "Where were you? Why didn't you come and heal him?" Jesus does not answer her question but instead assures her that Lazarus will live in some deeper way.
Martha then goes and calls her sister, Mary. When Mary arrives she repeats the identical words to Jesus that Martha had spoken: "If you had been here my brother would not have died!" Mary is asking the universal, timeless question about suffering and God's seeming absence. "Where were you when my brother died?" She asks that question for everyone: Where is God when innocent people suffer? Where was God during the holocaust? Where is God when anyone's brother dies?
But, curiously, Jesus does not engage the question in theory; instead he becomes distressed and asks: "Where have you put him?" And when they offer to show him, he begins to weep. His answer to suffering: He enters into peoples' helplessness and pain. Afterwards, he raises Lazarus from the dead.
And what we see here will occur in the same way between Jesus and his Father. The Father does not save Jesus from death on the cross even when he is jeered and mocked there. Instead the Father allows him to die on the cross and then raises him up afterwards.
The lesson in both these deaths and raisings might be put this way: The God we believe in doesn't necessarily intervene and rescue us from suffering and death, although we are invited to pray for that. Instead he redeems our suffering afterwards.
Sometimes the only answer to the question of suffering and evil is the one Jesus gave to Mary and Martha - shared helplessness, shared distress, and shared tears, with no attempt to try to explain God's seeming absence, but rather a trusting that, because God is all-loving and all-powerful, in the end all will be well and our pain will someday be redeemed in God's embrace.
The gospel invites us to enter the mystery of our own disabilities, hidden or otherwise. We need not fear those moments of being secret “lepers” ourselves, those parts of our being we hide away and lock up: our failures and sins, our vanities and deceptions, our jealousies and fakery. He will reach out to touch us there. It is only our denial that prevents the cure.
Today after mass the sacrament of anointing will be offered. The sacrament is always effective: always brings healing to the person. This sacrament provides healing, sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, always spiritual.
And as Christ himself prayed that the “cup of suffering might not have to be consumed” we pray firstly for the restoration of health, if it is brings a fuller life. The first grace of the sacrament is strength, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that come from either illness or frailty of old age. The sick person also receives the strength to unite herself with the Redemptive passion of Christ. Let the healthy stay to pray for the sick; let the sick offer their suffering for the spiritual well-being of the physically healthy.