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, especially as we get older, may get much more seriously sick, perhaps even chronically ill. And, after the traumatic experience of the covid pandemic, we all worry about some new disease, 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, and ask Is not life on earth a drudgery? [Job 7:1-4, 6-7].
Judging from today’s Gospel [Mark 1:29-39], 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 took charge of the situation, grasped her by the hand and helped her up – a scene so encouraging that it might have lifted even Job out of his depression! In doing this, by healing the sick, Jesus was revealing his Father to us – exemplifying 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. It has been suggested, for example, that one reason people on Downton Abbey shook hands so infrequently was that people were worried about catching things! Fair enough, in a world without antibiotics! All of us here have lived through and remember the covid pandemic of 2020, especially those early weeks when we were washing our hands all the time and keeping our distance from one another. Some of these emergency measures made sense, some didn’t. I was a pastor in Knoxville, TN, at the time, and I remember leaving the mail out in the sun on the porch for several hours for the sunlight to kill the virus, at a time when even touching the mail was thought by some to be dangerous.
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. Even apart from global pandemics, 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.
Something similar still happens at the pilgrimage site 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.
Like Lourdes, but more accessible than a pilgrimage, the Anointing of the Sick is another expression of Christ’s healing presence and saving power continuing in our world – calling us too to care as he does. For centuries, one of prayers of that sacramental ritual has taken inspiration from the story of Peter’s mother-in-law to pray that the sick who have been anointed may return to their regular work, restored by the gift of God’s mercy. Isn’t that how all of us – healthy or sick – experience God’s mercy every day in our here-and-now ordinary lives?
Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, February 4, 2024.