, we looked at pastoral work in the context of the voice of illness. Four weeks ago
, I began my Advent/Christmas reflection this year by defining the “voice of illness” as that voice inside all of us that cries, “Where is God?” Three weeks ago
, we looked at the desire that we all have to do
, when sometimes all we need to do is simply be
. Two weeks ago
, we looked at what Jesus teaches us when it comes to responding to the voice of illness.
It’s amazing that we are already almost at Christmas. What a year it has been! For many, it’s been a year that has been marked with a little more darkness than usual. There’s been sickness and death; there have also been other kinds of loss. At the same time, it’s been a year that has presented us with many opportunities for growth. Despite the struggles, it’s been a year of blessings (we looked at this in my series on the COVID Spring
). There are always struggles, and there is always suffering, but this crisis has forced the whole world to suffer together – in a way, to realize we are not alone.
More importantly, I think, to realize that our suffering brings us together.
One of the blessings this year is that we have been forced to look at suffering differently. This is an area where the Catholic Church has much to teach. Isn’t it surprising that the day after Christmas, we celebrate the first martyr, St. Stephen? And then a few days later, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. These were the baby boys that were massacred by King Herod when the Magi did not return to him to tell him the whereabouts of the newborn Messiah (Matthew 2:13-18). The Bible is full of violence and suffering; it is full of innocent sufferers.
And the Church makes a point of commemorating these events for a reason.
Perhaps it is Job who is the epitome of the innocent sufferer. He loses everything and still remains faithful to God. However, he does make a case for his innocence. He pleads with God to hear him out. Most of the book is a long "where are you God?" His three friends go to him to give him sympathy and comfort. First, they cry for him and then sit with him in silence for seven days for “they saw how great was his suffering”
(Job 2:11-13). Reading Job, I find a comfort in that, while we may seek reasons for our suffering, we may never find them, and that’s OK. This is why the voice of illness does not cry out, “Why?” but, “Where are you God?” God does speak to Job, and He makes himself present to Job, but he never explains why Job is suffering. He only makes it clear that He is God. He answers “where is God” by showing “who is God”. We need not seek the why of our suffering. It seems to be a part of life.
And, so often, it is in our suffering that we can encounter God.
Then there’s Isaiah’s “suffering servant”. Christians believe that Isaiah is speaking about the Messiah, the Christ. He portrays this servant as oppressed and condemned, like a lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7-8), and even though he will be highly exalted, his look will be disfigured (Isaiah 52:13-14):
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
One of those from whom men hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem. (Isaiah 53:3)
Isaiah continues by saying that “this silent servant” will bear our infirmities and endure our sufferings: “He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins”
( Isaiah 53:4-5). This is the Christ St. Stephen – that first martyr whom we celebrate on December 26 – professed (Acts 7:54-60), the Christ whom we
profess: the Christ who takes away our infirmities and bears our diseases (Isaiah 53:4 and Matthew. 8:17) and who through his own suffering shall justify many (Isaiah 53:11).
Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call of help, from my cries of anguish?”
But I am but a worm, hardly human;
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me. (Psalm 22:6-7)
This is Isaiah’s suffering servant, whom we believe is the Christ, our God, who takes away our suffering, who is our comfort and our healing.
These examples from Job, Isaiah, and Psalm 22 remind us that we may not be able to explain the suffering of those mothers who lost their babies around the time of Jesus' birth – and we may not be able to explain the suffering of 2020. Yet, although we may not be able to explain suffering, or while God doesn’t always take away our suffering, we believe in a God who suffers with us.
Just one look at the Cross is a reminder of the kind of God we believe in.
At the same time, it is this servant that Isaiah describes who will come “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness”
(Isaiah 42:7). In a later chapter, he adds, “to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners”
and “to comfort those who mourn”
(as we heard on the Third Sunday of Advent, Isaiah 61:1-2). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reads from those same passages from Isaiah and adds: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”
(Luke 4:16-21), asserting that he is the one about whom Isaiah was writing. It’s also clear to me that this suffering Christ, who takes on our infirmities and who suffers with us, also takes away our suffering, brings good news to the poor, lets prisoners free, comforts the afflicted, and gives sight to the blind. It is he to whom we must go with our afflictions.
He is our comfort, our healing, and our salvation.
That is the hope that we profess all during Advent. That is the fulfilled promise that we celebrate at Christmas. This is why at the Christmas Vigil Mass, we will hear Isaiah tell us that “no more shall people call you forsaken or your land desolate, but you shall be my delight”
(Isaiah 62:4). And at the Mass at Night, we hear him say that “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned"
(Isaiah 9:2). And again, at the Christmas Mass During the Day, he reminds us that “the LORD comforts his people, he redeems Jerusalem”
(Isaiah 52:9). At that same Mass, we will hear from the Gospel of John that:
...the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)
This is what all those stories of suffering in the Bible teach us: Yes, there is darkness, but it will not overcome the light. We need to acknowledge the suffering of others and remember our own suffering so that we can comfort others and then, with our words and actions of hope, reassure them that there is always light.
Come back next week, and I will share with you some stories from my experience with the voice of illness.
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing
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