Today’s readings, especially the reading from the Book of Wisdom , speak to me in a very personal way.
As some of you are aware, 33 years and 5 months ago, a nightmarish tragedy struck my family with the sudden death of my sister at age 32. Anyone who has had to face the death of a loved one knows the unique pain that death brings to the survivors. Often that pain cannot be expressed, only felt, and cannot always be shared.
Certainly any death challenges faith, but especially when it happens to someone so young, and apparently healthy, so suddenly and unexpectedly. As human beings we look for reasons and for answers to the question “WHY?” Why this death? Why now? And, there are no answers, at least none that satisfy.
But of one thing I am convinced: God is not the author of death nor could God have willed it for my sister. Often people say, in an attempt to comfort, that “It’s God’s will”. But, I cannot accept that. It makes God a convenient scapegoat for what we consider evil; and, God cannot be responsible for evil. To blame God for evil goes against everything I believe about our God and upon which I base my life of faith. Illness and death can be said to God’s will only to the extent that God allows them to take place.
One thing Scripture shouts to us is that God does not see physical infirmity, illness or death as part of God’s plan for us. The author of Genesis believed in a life-giving, creative, good God. Notice that God didn’t forbid the man and the woman from eating of the tree of immortality. Yet, they were faced with the reality of pain and death. Where did they come from? Not from God, but from the couple and their sin made possible by the gift of free will. And so, God had to alter the plan of immortality, not abandon it. Throughout the Old Testament we find a caring God who continually offers life, who cures, heals and even raises from the dead. This is further emphasized in the New Testament ministry of Jesus who went about doing good, healing, touching the lepers, reaching out to people shunned because of physical and/or spiritual illness, and even restoring people to life as we heard in today’s Gospel. In doing so, Jesus was showing us that God abhors illness and death as much as we do.
Life and God’s goodness and power will nonetheless ultimately triumph. To those who believe in God and follow in God, God promises eternal life, not just of the soul but also of the body as well in the resurrection on the last day as we profess in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed.
Where does death come from then? The Wisdom author says it’s the result of the envy of the devil (Wisdom 2:23-24).But, the devil only has power because we can sin. In our free will, we can choose spiritual death over life, separation from God instead of union with God. Does this mean that illness or death is the direct result of sins I or you commit? NO! That view would picture God as some vindictive power just waiting around for us to mess up so He could swoop down to nail us. I can’t accept that either. Instead, illness and death are the result of the overall state of sin in our world, the sinfulness that pervades it and causes its imperfections.
Finally, however, we are faced with a mystery. If God can heal and overcome death, why doesn’t He? Why are some people healed, and others are not? Some would say it’s the result of their personal faith. After all in today’s Gospel (Mk 5:21-43) Jesus did say to the woman that it was her faith that cured her. But, unfortunately some would conclude that if a person is not healed, it is because he/she doesn’t have enough faith. I cannot accept that as well. There are some very faith-filled people, even some of whom the Church recognizes as saints, who suffer with illness. Why? We just don’t know. I certainly don’t. I wish I did, but I don’t. And that makes it at times all the harder.
What I and all of us must finally believe is that our God is not capricious or vindictive. God is a God of life and love. I believe that totally and deeply. All we can do is listen to and live Christ’s counsel in today’s Gospel: "Do not be afraid; just have faith.” ; or in previous translation: “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.”
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B18
1 Wisdom 1:13-15;2:23-24.
2 Mark 5:36