Last year the world’s attention was captured by the Ebola epidemic in Africa – attention that turned to extreme panic in some places when some cases appeared here in the US. Now we have an epidemic of measles that started in, of all places, Disneyland, an epidemic probably could have been prevented if only everyone had been properly vaccinated. But, since that is not the case, more anxiety and panic have ensued. Sickness is certainly one of the universal human experiences. Some of us may be lucky to be generally healthier than others; but few of us get to escape any sickness at all. And some of us may get much more seriously sick, perhaps even chronically ill. And we all worry about some new epidemic unexpectedly upsetting business as usual. As Job reminds us, when we are sick, we experience how powerless we really are, how limited our control; and, like Job, we may feel discouraged and angry.
Judging from today’s Gospel, Jesus spent a lot of his time curing the sick, liberating people from the various physical and spiritual disabilities that has hitherto overpowered them. That seems to be how his reputation spread.
So, when he entered Simon and Andrew’s house and heard that Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, Jesus grasped her by the hand and helped her up –a scene so encouraging that it could have lifted even Job out of his depression! In doing this, by healing the sick, Jesus was revealing his Father to us – demonstrating god’s care for us. The Gospel says he grasped her by the hand. Touching is one of those things people tend to be especially squeamish about with the sick. I saw on TV recently an explanation of why people on Downton Abbey shake hands so infrequently. People were worried about catching things! Fair enough, in a world without antibiotics! But Jesus often touched the people he healed. With that one simple gesture, he joined himself with the sick and suffering who were stuck at the margins of normal social activity. In so doing, he summarized the story of his life, his mission to become one with us and so to empower us to get up and live that fuller life God really wants us to live.
Good news travels fast. Soon, the whole town was gathered at the door. And so it has been ever since as the Church continues Christ’s life and mission in our world – caring for the sick and accompanying them with the Church’s prayer.
The same God who cares enough to touch us, by becoming one of us in his Son, continues to bring us together in the same struggle against suffering. We all know how sickness – especially serious sickness – separates people, straining, limiting, even destroying normal social activities and relationships. In Jesus’ presence, however, the healthy were drawn to the sick and became part of the healing process. The first thing the disciples did was to tell Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law. Later on, when other sick people were brought to Jesus, they didn’t come alone. The whole town brought them.
This Wednesday, February 11, we celebrate Our lady of Lourdes. More maybe than any other single site, Lourdes is known as one of those special places to which pilgrims come from all over the world to seek physical and spiritual healing. It is especially inspiring to witness the compassionate and loving way in which the sick are welcomed and enabled to participate in all the various activities there. Since 1997, February 11 has been observed as the Church’s annual World Day of the Sick – so designated by Saint John Paul II as “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church and of reminding us to see in our sick brother and sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying, and rising, achieved the salvation of the human race.”
The Church also expresses Christ’s continued care and concern for the sick through the special sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Contrary to some common misconceptions, it is not a sacrament primarily for those at death’s door, but rather the special sacrament for all whose health has been seriously impaired by sickness or old age. In fact, for centuries, the ritual has prayed that the sick who have been anointed may recover. Like Lourdes, but more easily accessible than a pilgrimage, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is one very visible expression of how Christ’s healing presence and saving power continue in our world – continue Christ’s caring for us, calling us too to care as he does.
Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 8, 2015.