Last week we observed how the Gospel readings for these two Sundays form one single unit and describe a typical day in the life of Jesus as he begins to carry out his public ministry. This typical day was a very busy one beginning with teaching in the Synagogue and then casting out unclean spirits.
Now our text today tells us that Jesus moves from the Synagogue in Capernaum to the home of Andrew and Peter where he heals Peter’s mother-in-law before going on to bring healing to many more needy people.
We can only imagine the effect that this had on the people of the neighbourhood, many of whom would have been suffering from illnesses or afflictions of one kind or another. The members of the rather rudimentary medical profession in those days would have been able to do very little to ameliorate the condition of those suffering from infirmities that in our modern age are easily treated by antibiotics or simple surgery.
So, when a healer like Jesus comes along we understand how the people from all around would have flocked to him in search of healing. But, of course, while Jesus never turned anyone away he could not heal every single sufferer living in the Palestine of his day.
Not only that, but we realise that he did not heal some people who were very close to him. For example, he must have let his own foster father, Joseph, get ill and die. Also, we realise too that all the people that Jesus did actually heal would get sick once again and eventually die. This leads us to consider the whole question of sickness and what it means.
Jesus healed the people for two reasons; first because he had compassion for them and secondly because it enabled the people to see that he truly was the Messiah, the Saviour of the World, and so helped them to believe in him.
In the first reading today, Job despairs and believes that his life is no more than pressed service and that, while on the one hand, it seems to drag very slowly, on the other hand, it passes swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. He finds that in the midst of all his considerable afflictions his life lacks meaning and purpose and he wonders whether he is not just God’s plaything. In the face of a great deal of suffering and pain you can imagine that many people might feel the very same as Job.
Some people believe that sickness is a punishment for sinful actions. However, to think like this is to misunderstand God because God does not punish us as we would punish other people for their misdeeds. God is not a High Court Judge whose job is to adequately punish those who seriously infringe the law. No, our God is a God of love whose ultimate concern is our salvation.
We know that sickness is an evil and is a consequence of the presence of sin in the world but we Christians also know that sickness is not caused by God. The most we can say is that God allows it. And he would not allow it unless he knew that a great deal of good can arise from sickness which is patiently borne.
In fact, the purpose of sickness is to help us to grow closer to God. Very often when we are enjoying good health and all is going well in our lives we find that we forget all about God. But when we suffer illness we find ourselves reminded that we are mortal beings and that our life will eventually come to an end. Frequently it is at this point that we then turn to God, repent of our sins, and seek a renewed closeness with him.
Another consequence of sickness is that it brings us closer to our brothers and sisters in the human family. Those who find themselves having to care for us begin to exercise compassion and their love for us deepens. Caring for another person who is seriously ill is rarely easy, but it untaps in us an enormous well-spring of compassion and concern.
In the newspapers recently, we have heard that because of improved testing during pregnancy Downs Syndrome is now more easily detected and this has resulted in a great increase in such babies being aborted. In Iceland, apparently, Downs Syndrome has been almost completely eradicated and in Denmark 98% of Downs babies are aborted.
Yet if you speak to the parents of a child with Downs Syndrome they will tell you how loving and life-enhancing their children are. They will tell you about the great joy they have brought to the family despite their need for a lot of extra care and attention. The same goes for children born with a whole range of other handicaps.
We are coming up to the World Day of Prayer for the Sick which falls on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, 11th February; though this year because that day is a Sunday we will celebrate the feast on the Monday. We will be offering in our Church the Sacrament of the Sick after mass on that day as well as after Sunday Mass in the Royal Hospital and also with the sick who get visited each First Friday.
It is important to remember all those who are sick in our daily prayers and to extend to them our compassion and support. You will notice that the sick are always remembered in the Prayers of Intercession at each Mass.
Out of compassion Jesus healed the sick but he did not eradicate sickness from the world. Instead he helps us to understand that borne patiently sickness is able to yield a precious fruit. Sickness is able to bring us closer to God. And this works both ways, our illnesses help us to appreciate God better and bring us closer to him in prayer. But also, just as with Jesus in the Gospels, the Lord seems to favour the sick and pours out his healing love on all those who suffer.
In illness we feel particularly close to Jesus because we are able to identify with the sufferings he bore on our behalf on the Cross of Calvary. It is important to have a Crucifix in the bedroom for this very reason. In times of serious illness, we can look at the Crucifix and consciously unite our sufferings with those of Christ. It is at these moments that we realise that our own trials are our personal contribution to the salvation Christ won for us.
So, we Christians reject the notion that suffering and illness are always a bad thing. While, naturally enough, we do our best to avoid pain when we discover that it is inevitable we make the choice to embrace it, to unite it with the sufferings of Christ and offer it to God as our small part in the salvation of the world.