The reality of human suffering has been a puzzle for people of all cultures and all ages. It is often a mind-boggling and heartbreaking experience to bear suffering, or to see our loved ones burdened with it, especially when we feel that it is undeserved. But the scripture readings of today’s liturgy give us some splendid and life-transforming insight into the mystery of human suffering.
In the first reading, we hear Job’s heart-rending lamentation over his suffering. Job has the feeling that his condition is utterly hopeless. He speaks of “months of misery,” “troubled nights” that drag on endlessly, and days that “come to an end without hope.” He cries out: “Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Job’s personal experience makes him suspect that this is the sad lot of all men: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings?”
If we read the rest of Job’s story, we know that his sufferings are indeed overwhelming, but they do not have the final word. Passing through unimaginable trials, he eventually sees reason for hope, he meets the Lord, and in the end he is filled with happiness. We can imagine Job joyfully singing the refrain of today’s Psalm: “Praise the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted!” The Book of Job, one of the “Wisdom Books” of the Bible, is meant to let us know that there is a hidden purpose – indeed, divine wisdom – behind our pains and sufferings.
This wisdom is only fully revealed, however, in the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals that God is not a distant God who remains aloof, indifferent to our plight. He enters right into our life’s struggles. He knows our suffering, for he carries the Cross for us and with us. Jesus willingly submitted himself to the most excruciating and humiliating of sufferings and brought forth from it a treasure of immeasurable value, the gift of eternal life for us.
In Christ Jesus, and in us who are his followers, human suffering takes on a totally different meaning, as we learn from St. Paul in his beautiful First Letter to the Corinthians. Christ has sanctified human sufferings by taking them upon himself. Our sufferings should therefore be seen, no longer as an unjust burden or a senseless tragedy, but as our participation in the mystery of Christ’s own life. For the sake of the Gospel, Paul welcomes suffering; he would suffer more, he says, if he did not preach the Gospel: “Woe to me if I do not preach it!” He renounces his right to anything and makes himself “a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible.” He is willing to become weak to win over the weak. He will do anything he can for others, “to save at least some.” St. Paul is teaching us about our own Christian life. For the sake of the Gospel and for the salvation of our brothers and sisters we can unite all our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ.
Today’s Gospel shows us in a very striking way that Jesus has the power to heal, that he is deeply concerned about the sick, and that he himself is the answer to the problem of sickness. As soon as he arrives in the house of Simon and Andrew, he is told that Simon’s mother in-law is suffering from a fever. The severity of the illness is shown by the woman’s inability to provide any hospitality for her honored guest. The disciples demonstrate for us a truly Christian response to suffering: “They immediately told him about her.” They do not waste time discussing the illness, its causes and implications – as Job’s friends had done, and as perhaps we too often do. No, they present her to him, without knowing exactly what he will do. This is intercessory prayer, a powerful way in which we can aid those who are suffering. Praying for the sick is a spiritual work of mercy, just as visiting the sick is a corporal work of mercy. We are called to practice both.
Jesus’ response to their prayer is personal and powerful: “He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.” The original word for “helped her up” literally means “raised her up.” On Easter morning, the angel will use this same word to tell the women at the tomb that Jesus has been “raised up” (Mk 16:6). This woman’s recovery from illness through the healing power of Jesus is a sign of his own resurrection. Even more, it is a foreshadowing of our resurrection on the last day.
That day in Capernaum, Jesus did not heal only one woman; “he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons.” All these miracles are signs of hope. Jesus is showing us that suffering does not have the last word, that in him, suffering can become a step toward resurrection. If we share in his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, as St. Paul teaches us, we will also share in the glory of his resurrection (cf. Phil 3:10-11). Jesus’ miraculous healing of the sick demonstrates to us that there is great hope, even when we are suffering.
What is my response to suffering? Do I join my pain to the cross of Jesus or do I sink into hopelessness? Am I willing to pray for and visit the sick and suffering?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.