In today’s First Reading and Gospel we are invited to reflect on the meaning of suffering in the life of the Christian.
In the extract from the book of Job set before us we see how Job despaired at the suffering he was forced to endure. He had lost everything: his land, possessions and even his family, besides a plague of boils and other horrors. We can certainly identify with his complaint.
He sees no sense in his suffering and therefore no meaning in his life and he complains at what he must endure. As he says, on the one hand time drags and goes by only very slowly and painfully, and yet on the other hand it seems to pass so quickly that the years are gone swiftly leaving him feeling empty and hopeless.
Job despairs, but we know that later in the story he rediscovers hope and his losses are restored to him. His perseverance pays off; God rewards him for not giving up.
Nevertheless, we all too easily identify with his suffering and we have all known depression at one time or another in our lives.
In the Gospel reading there is a much more positive note and we read about the compassion of Jesus. He cures Simon’s mother-in-law and then goes on to cure all who asked for healing whether they were suffering from illnesses of body or spirit.
We know that Jesus did not refuse to heal one single person who presented themselves to him and asked for healing. Even those he knew would turn out to be ungrateful were cured by Jesus.
But his compassion drains him and he goes away to a lonely place to be at peace and to pray to the Father. Yet even there the disciples come looking for him, and he decides to move on to other towns so he can continue his ministry of teaching and healing.
What went on in those early hours of the morning when he was alone in prayer? Surely Jesus must have prayed for all those people with their illnesses and afflictions of all kinds. His heart was certainly full of compassion for them and all that suffering must have played on his mind.
But he also knew that he would have to undergo suffering himself; that in the garden he too would beg the Father to release him. We don’t know, indeed we cannot know, what went through Jesus’ mind in those few hours of prayer. In his humanity we can conjecture that he would think just as we would in the same circumstances. However, in his divinity we must acknowledge that he certainly understood the meaning of all that was to take place.
The people Jesus healed were truly cured of their afflictions but they would inevitably become sick again and die from one cause or another. Their particular illnesses were healed but not their human condition.
Jesus faced his own death with courage and chose to bear the insults which were heaped upon him. In the manner of his death he showed us how to face death, suffering and all the other evils we will inevitably meet during the course of our life.
He faced his passion and death not only with courage but with the certain hope that it would bring about the salvation of the world. His death became the triumph over sin and evil. His death is our liberation for by his wounds we are healed.
Healthy though we now may feel, all of us must face illness or suffering of one kind or other. A very high proportion of us might also experience depression and despair similar to that described in the Book of Job. In some cases this might have a medical or psychological cause or ironically it might come as a side effect of medication we may be taking to relieve some other complaint.
Whatever its origin, it is something that is very difficult to deal with. Depression and despair needs healing just as much as any other illness. And like any other illness we can offer it to God. We can ask him to accept these sufferings as our share in the Cross of Christ, as our small contribution to Christ’s work of salvation.
For the Christian suffering is never without meaning. The pain we experience is not merely negative it is a part of the great struggle in which all mankind is engaged, it enables us to be united with Christ in the one great act of redemption.
Jesus went to a lonely place and prayed there. Each one of us also needs to spend time in a lonely place of our own. We need to pray, we need to build up our courage to face the trials ahead and the best way to do this is to draw strength from the Father in prayer.
We must each find our own place of stillness, our own place of silence, where we can commune with the Lord. We need to find a place where our souls can be at rest and have time to contemplate what lies ahead for us and grow in understanding of the victory that Christ has already won.
I am very pleased today to greet your candidates for the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is nice to see so many young people prepared to stand up for Christ and to commit themselves to living out the Gospel in the world of today.
As we have seen, the Way of Christ, the Way of the Gospels, is not an easy road to travel but we know that it is the only way to find real meaning in life and make sense of our world.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you and to encourage you as you commit yourselves to the programme of preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. And also for the greater commitment you will make on that day when the Bishop by prayer and the laying on of hands admits you to full membership of the Church.
Through our reflection on the scripture readings today we realise that all of us are inadequate in some way or other, that all of us need healing. And we Catholics gathered around this altar recognise our dependence on God and his sacraments.
We read the account in the Gospel today of how the whole town came crowding round the door where Jesus was. They were certainly not all suffering from particular illnesses but they all recognised Jesus as a healer and knew that he could bring them physical and spiritual health.
Those words ‘They came crowding round the door’ remind me of those few moments before mass here at St Joseph’s as you arrive. It can all seem a bit chaotic! It is cold outside and there are many things to do such as picking up the mass sheets or getting a hymn book and a newsletter, greeting your friends, or whatever?
Or maybe we are like just those people in Capernaum crowding round the door trying to meet Jesus and experience his healing and the power of his salvation?
Father Alex McAllister SDS