In today’s Gospel we hear of two very dramatic miraculous accounts. We have the woman who had been suffering from haemorrhage for more than twelve years and getting worse, in spite of being attended to by different doctors. We then have Jairus, the high ranking official of the synagogue where his daughter was dead and raised to life by Jesus.
When we try to talk about and reflect on suffering, sickness and death, we all know that this is a very complex topic; it is both a human mystery and divine mystery. It is a human reality that we have to face daily and for some of us, with intense pain and often with great helplessness and even hopelessness. However, as Christians, we also believe that God’s Compassion for us is real and that we are not alone in our suffering, sickness and death.
So, how do we proceed meaningfully in our reflection on the reality of suffering, sickness and death in our lives? Within the last few days, I had given Holy Communion, anointed the sick and Baptised people who were critically ill. As a priest, other than administering the Sacraments and trying to speak words of compassion to strengthen the faith and renew the hopes of people who are critically ill, what else can I say to someone who is in great pain and has intense fear of death, and perhaps even angry with God who doesn’t seem to have answered his prayers? What do I say to a very distraught young parent who has asked for the Baptism of their one month old baby who is in a critical condition in ICU?
While we wish that God would heal all our illnesses and even raise to life our departed loved ones, we also know that we cannot expect this of God all the time. This is because if God were to heal all our illnesses and raise all the dead, just because we plead with Him to do so, like Jairus in today’s Gospel, then all hospitals will be emptied out and we would all be living to hundreds of years old in this world and never willing and having to die!
Yet, at the same time, we can all testify that God’s Compassion and Love for us is real because we have each personally experience this to be true.
There is one thing that we can be sure of as Christians; like the rest of humankind, we are not exempted from falling sick some day and will have to face death one day. Whether this will actually happen to us in our old age or younger age or even as an infant, is not something we can choose. But, what we can choose and determine for ourselves is the way we face will suffering, sickness and death.
There are different types of people who face their suffering, sickness and death differently: first type of persons are those who have great fears of death and cling on to life, and are even angry with God for not seemingly answering their prayers to heal them. Some even stop coming to Church or stopped believing in God because of their pain and suffering. They say that if there is a God who cannot heal me, then He is not worth believing in. We should continue to show compassion towards such hurting persons. For such persons, they are not ready to die and are still clinging on to what they possess in their life on earth – their material wealth, their family and what they know life to be. These people wrongly perceive death as destroying everything they are, have known and own in their life. Thus, they are not ready to let go of their earthly life’s experiences and possessions. To such persons, they perceive life after death as still an unknown and heaven as still an uncertain reality.
Second type of persons are those who initially struggle with their sickness and the prospects of death, but eventually they face death with peace. For such persons, they have lived a life of faith, but in all probability, while God is real to them God was not always the centre of their lives and the highest priority in their life. Thus, they may still be harbouring the pains of having caused hurts to others and the guilt of not having lived a full life as God and the Gospel of Jesus wills of them. For such a person, they would particularly draw much consolation from the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Sick at their death bed; they need to be assured that God’s Mercy for them is infinite and His Love is unconditional.
Third type of persons; they are those who look forward to their death as they desire deeply to be united with God in heaven and for all eternity. These are those of us who are not perfect, but with great sincerity of heart we turn the pains and trials of our lives into meaningful challenges of loving God more fully, and serving God’s people, whoever they are, and especially those who were hurting and in need, more wholeheartedly. We are those who dare to defend the weak, stand up for the Truth of the Gospel, and shared what we have and possess till it hurts, even though it hurts and even while we are hurting – all because this is how Jesus lived. If we are living such a life, then this short poem beautifully describes what death can seem to be for us:
I have seen death too often to believe in death.
It is not ending – but a withdrawal.
As one who finished a long journey,
stills the motor, turns off the lights,
steps from his car,
and walks up the path
to the home that awaits him.
If we were to go home tonight and find that we have two weeks to live because of an aggressive cancer tumour within us, a good question that we could ask ourselves is “How do I think I would be facing my suffering, sickness and impending death? Would I find myself belonging to the first, second or third type of persons that we just described?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the quality of our death gives us a good indication of how we have lived or not lived our Catholic Christian faith during our life time. To conclude, I would like us to reflect on St Ignatius’ world view of how each of us are called to live our faith daily. His “Prayer of Generosity” sums this up very well.
“Lord, teach me to be generous,
Teach me to serve You as You deserve,
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labour and not to seek for reward
save that of knowing
I do Your most Holy Will.”
Once our hearts are open to living the Christ-like life that Jesus has shown and taught us, and as passionately as St Ignatius expresses it in his “Prayer of Generosity,” we can be sure that our daily pains and sufferings will be transformed into meaningful challenges, as loving God and living like Jesus, is truly the most fulfilling and happiest way of living our life on earth and meeting our God in heaven when we die.
Is this possible? By our own will and human efforts, it is impossible, but with God’s strength, nothing is impossible; just as Jesus tells Jairus whose daughter had died, “Do not be afraid; only have faith.”
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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