Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Job 7: 1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23; Mark 1: 29 39
Saint John Baptist de LaSalle/Saint Stephen February 4, 2024
My mother was not an outdoor person; gardening was not her thing, but each year she would have my father prepare the soil where she would plant flowers all around the house. The flowers attracted all kinds of butterflies. If you moved slowly and did not scare them, you could touch them while they fed. I loved it and was in my glory. I could sit and watch them for hours. One morning, after my father had left for work, I went out to play with the butterflies, and there, in the driveway, was a butterfly that had been run over by the car. I carefully picked it up, crying tears of great sadness. I ran into the house, asking my mother why God had allowed this to happen. To this very day, the suffering of insects, animals, and people bothers me very much.
I am reminded of this suffering every time they play one of those animal abuse commercials on television, and one image of a suffering animal follows another. I do not want to see this, and I do not want to think about it, even if I should. I ask myself why the suffering of animals bothers me so greatly when I find myself in the presence of human suffering almost daily. How is it that I can find human suffering easier to bear? If you do as well, is there something wrong with us? Perhaps this is the answer. Physical suffering is something that we can see, and we understand it, however imperfectly, because we have all experienced it ourselves. We know what an overwhelming pain in the stomach feels like, and we know the terror we experience when we hear that we or someone close to us is sick. When I visit someone in a hospital bed, all that I can do, and not very well, is to imagine the physical pain they are enduring.
I cannot truly recreate all the spiritual and psychological pain that comes with sickness. It is a challenge to face or explain why someone is experiencing spiritual suffering. Why has this happened? Am I to blame for this? Will this pass? Or is this how it is going to be? Will this worsen? What will I do if it does? Will I ever regain the life that I had? How much of my life, my dreams, will this illness take? The physical pain that we share with animals is something that we can grasp, but the spiritual pain of illness that we experience exceeds our understanding. It is too great for us to conceive, even for ourselves, much less understand in others.
Most people in our world do not live beyond the reach of modern medicine, and what it cannot cure, it can at least relieve. But who or what can deliver us from the spiritual suffering of some serious illness? This is the very question Saint Mark is answering in today’s Gospel, where the identity of Jesus becomes clearer through a series of denials and demonstrations. Jesus will not answer clearly if he is the Messiah, why, it’s because of the many false expectations that come with this claim. Instead, Jesus appears among us as one who heals, who casts out demons, who rules nature itself, who feeds the multitudes. As a result, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law: When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him. Try to imagine what that day must have been like for the crowds gathered at the house. And then Jesus tells his disciples: Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.
Jesus is a preacher, not a doctor. We can master healing quite well ourselves, and yet we are not, and never were, meant to conquer physical death itself. It is death’s assault upon our soul that we need not fear. It is the preacher, the one who knows something that eludes us, whom we must hear, the one who can truly minister to spiritual suffering. I ran frantically into the house with tears streaming down my face, clutching the butterfly in my hands. I threw my arms around my mother and howled. Eventually, after I had calmed down a bit, I told her what had happened. It was the first time I had ever seen a living creature die. My mother held me tight and calmed me, wiping away my tears. That is who Jesus is, the one who can hold us tight and wipe away all our tears.