29 June 2009

Faith in the Time of Influenza A(H1N1)

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13; 2 Cor 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mk 5:21-43

The readings this Sunday provide a timely opportunity to reflect on God and our experience of life and death, sickness and healing. Recently the Influenza A(H1N1) has been declared a global pandemic, though the panic seems to be subsiding now due to reports of low death rates, the creation of a vaccine, and the generally mild and manageable flu cases.

1. God is the God of life.

The First Reading from the Book of Wisdom begins with the assertion: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wis 1,13). And still further: “For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him” (Wis 2,23).

This is not a denial of our universal experience of death and dying as realities in the cycle of life, in the rhythm of nature. Nor is this an exaggeration. That God formed man to be imperishable is a statement concerning the place of death in the greater scheme of God’s plan of salvation.

A faithless understanding of death considers it as the end of everything, the beginning of nothingness. This nihilistic point of view leads to too much fear of death and a sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness. But this is not so for the Christian. A Christian understands death not as an end but as a bridge to eternal life.

In the Gospel story, Jesus speaks of Jairus’ daughter as “not dead but asleep” (Mk 5,39). Indeed, death for a Christian becomes the sleep of our physical body, while our spirit earns the reward (or further purification) after a well-spent life, while awaiting the fulfillment of the resurrection of our body, and life everlasting. Thus, with much faith and hope, we can confidently say: death does not have the last word, for our God is the God of life. In a non-modalistic way, we call the Father, the Creator of life; the Holy Spirit, dominum et vivificantem, Lord and giver of life; and the Son calls Himself: “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14,6).

2. God heals and restores our broken lives.

The Book of Wisdom ascribes to the devil and sin the entry of death and sickness into the picture: “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it” (Wis 2,24). St. Paul also says: “death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned” (Rom 5,12).

And how does God figure into this reality of death, sickness and sin? Let me share with you the opening lines of the song “Pag-ibig Ko” by Fr. Charlie Censon, SJ:

Hindi ka kailangang magbago,
Kahit ito’y ibig ko...
Hindi ka kailangang magsikap ng husto
Upang ika’y ibigin ko...

The first time I heard these lines, my immediate reaction was: “Is this really what God wants? That we need not strive to change for the better?” And then it also struck me: “Who am I to question what God wants? What right do I have to define the limits of His love?” Indeed, St. Paul says: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5,8).

The God of life goes about restoring our broken selves so we may live our lives fully – even when we are still sinners, even when we are still blind or confused or lost because of sin. God loves us no matter what we do or how sinful we are. The miracles of healing in the Gospel of Mark are not just proofs of God’s power, but more so proofs of God’s love.

What then is our proper response to this graciousness of God?

3. Submit yourself to God’s power at work in you.

It only takes so little from us to tap into this great healing and restoring power. The woman, who suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years, came up behind Jesus and touched His cloak. And she was healed.

It only takes so little from us to pray, to avail of the sacrament of reconciliation, to earnestly confess Jesus as our Lord and Savior, to seek God's will. We are already loved. God's grace is already the operative principle of our lives. And yet...

Here’s a common complaint whenever we or a loved one get sick: “Lord, nata ako pa? Why me? Nata su agom ko pa o su aki ko pa?”

We like to hear stories of healing. They give us hope. They restore our faith in God. The Bible and history have many stories of sickness and healing:
• Naaman, the Assyrian general who was healed of his leprosy through the prophet Elisha, and whose healing saved Israel from destruction;
• Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who became mute, but became God’s mouthpiece right after his voice was restored when he sang his benediction about the future of his son and of Jesus;
• St. Paul was blind for a time, during his conversion experience.

What if no cure happens? What about stories of terminal cancers and illness that led to death?
• St. Paul suffered all his life from a “thorn in the flesh”. (Today nobody knows exactly what this means.) His ministry and letters, which many find inspiring, were in a way informed by his personal experience of pain and suffering.
• St. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes and St. Therese de Lisieux, both died of illness at a young age, despite their sanctity and the miracles attributed to their intercession. Yet so many have their faith restored or strengthened because of the witnessing of these two, and many other, saints.

There are some saints, founders of religious congregations, who found their conversion and calling while convalescing from wounds incurred in battle: St. Camillus de Lellis, St. Ignatius of Loyola, even St. Francis of Assisi.

So, what happens when we submit to God’s power? We do not face our suffering and problems alone anymore. We have God’s power at work in us. We become instruments of God’s power so others too may experience it. Which brings us to the last point…

4. Lead others to the God of life.

In the Second Reading, St Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to be gracious and charitable since Jesus Christ has been gracious to them. Once we recognize and feel in our whole being the joy, love and healing of the God of life, the next natural thing to do is to share this knowledge and love to others as well. How are we in sharing God’s gift of life and love to others? How are we in leading others to the God of life?

Here’s a story… In a class reunion, three long-lost friends were comparing their achievements so far:
Friend 1: I’m a doctor but I’m also a lay minister of the Eucharist, that’s why in the hospital where I work, people also call me “Father”.
Friend 2: I’m running a business but I’m also the head of our Catholic charismatic community. I also preach. And lots of people call me “Bishop”.
Friend 3: I’m just a simple sales rep but in my line of work, people call me “Diyos”.
Friend 1 & 2: Why? How come?
Friend 3: You see, when I knock at my customers’ house, they open the door and exclaim: “Diyos ko, ikaw na naman! Ang kulit mo talaga…”

Friends, in the same way that Jairus brought Jesus to his dying daughter and to his home, so we too are encouraged to lead others to the God of life. God’s gifts to us -- life, love, healing, strength, and especially, His Good News -- are meant to be shared with others, so they too may live in His life and find joy in it.

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