Fr. Joseph Johnson

Homily – World Day of the Sick

“Health Care for Body and Soul”

A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke:

Jesus told His disciples a parable.  Can a blind person guide a blind person?  Will not both fall into a pit?  No disciple is superior to the teacher, but when fully trained every disciple will be like his teacher.  Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?  How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,” when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye.  You hypocrite.  Remove the wooden beam from your eye first.  Then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.  The Gospel of the Lord.

I did not choose this parable with an anticipation of there being any ophthalmologists present.  But as the Lord Jesus was so often reaching out to those who were sick in one way or another, He reminded us that we are all blind.  How is it, as health care workers, you can go to the sick and bring to them what God wants you to bring to them, without first realizing that even the doctors, the nurses, the lab technicians, the administrators and the paramedics are all sick too.  It is from the profound realization of our own unwellness that we can begin to seek healing, the healing that God wants to give to us – the healing that God wants to give through us – to those whom He places in our path.  And so, on this World Day of the Sick, our Holy Father has dedicated this day in a special way to those who are terminally ill, which in a certain way describes all of us.  The meaning of living is dying, and the meaning of dying is life.  And as we are able to integrate our dying into our living, so we are better able to follow Jesus Christ, who died that we might live.

In baptism, all of us, as St. Paul reminds us, have been baptized into the death of Christ, so our souls have gone before the body in this and the body now follows.  But it will be as we realize this tension between the different parts of one person that we will find our encounter with Christ, for each one of us is made of body and soul, and both body and soul have needs.  Both body and soul must be cared for.  When we examine our spiritual life, we must take into account our physical life, and when we look at our physical life, we must think also of our spiritual life.  Because, though we may describe them in disparate terms, the reality is we have one life made of body and soul given to us by God, and called by God through this life, through the gift of death, into eternal life.

Can the blind guide the blind?  Obviously, Jesus reminds us that both will fall into a pit, and so in our seeking to bring healing to those around us, we must first have sought that healing for ourselves.  We must first admit our blindness and our need for a guide who sees – Jesus, who is the Light of the World.  He can pierce the darkness of our blindness and give there the clarity to see the beauty of life as God created it, the beauty of life as it is meant to be, lived in loving union with God and with one another, the beauty of our destiny, a life with no end, a life with no more pain and suffering, a life full of the peace and joy which come to us from God.

Remove that plank, that beam from our own eyes, so then we can look for the splinter in the eyes of those around us.  So it is Christ’s call to each one of us, that He comes as Savior because we need saving.  And any one of us who would pretend that we are well, to do so we deny Jesus Christ a place in our lives, for He did not come for those who are well, but those who are sick.  So, we call those who have reproved him for dining with sinners.  And so it is that each one of us, in admitting our need for healing, our need for saving, we begin to understand that disposition of heart which must be ours in the face of life and death.  It is a disposition of humility and of trust, humility because the great phases of life are beyond me, trust because I have not been left alone.  I have One Who has come to bring me comfort and to lead me home.

And in health care today, we face this great paradox where broken bodies, with broken souls, come into our hospitals, our nursing homes, our hospices, and they seek healing, and sometimes we look at that patient and we see there the potential for healing, and we reach for all of the resources that have been given to us and we fail.  We fall short.  So it is that the best of medicine has been able to stave off death for a time, but never to prevent it.  And in this paradox we find that sometimes scientists and doctors are all too eager to master the art of healing rather than to serve it.  And so it is that so much energy, so much money, and so much destruction are in the pursuit of replacing the Creator with Dr. Frankenstein.  And so, cloning and stem cell research dominate the newspapers and dominate our politics, whereas I have often wanted to remind my friends in health care that we still haven’t found the cure for the common cold.

It is a profound humility that is needed in the face of the wonder that is the human person, but as soon as we seek to master this, then we lose our sight and we stumble, and we drag down many others into that pit with ourselves.  Humility requires of us to acknowledge that the gifts that we have been given are to be used.  There is nowhere in science where we cannot venture, as long as we do so respectful of the wonder of creation, respectful of the dignity and rights of others, born or unborn, healthy or unwell, young or old, dying imminently or dying in a prolonged manner.  So it is that humility goes to the other person and sees not simply an object, but rather sees a companion on this journey through life and through death, a companion who has been given to us as a gift from God, a companion for whom we have responsibility.  For when Cain and Abel fought and Cain slew Abel, and God came and asked, “Where is he?” Cain innocently asked, “Well, am I my brother’s keeper?”  And so many times I hear that phrase parroted when I ask someone about another person.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  And they fail to realize that the Scriptural answer to that is yes.  Yes, you are … each one of us are called to exercise a responsibility towards all of our brothers and sisters.

And so it is the privilege of health care workers to arrive at that care of brother and sister in the most extraordinary time – the time when suffering has entered our brothers’ and sisters’ lives and they need our help.  So often we go through life trying to pretend that I’m okay and you’re okay.  We ask the question, “How are you?”  And we don’t expect an honest answer; we expect a nicety.  “Fine, thanks.  How are you?” “Oh, just fine.  Lovely weather, isn’t it?”  No, it’s abysmal weather.  It’s cold out there, and it makes me cranky, and my knees hurt and all of those other things, that if we honestly said how we felt … but that honesty is necessary, not that you could never say, “Fine, thank you.  How are you?” ever again, but rather you realize that below the surface of our pleasantries there must be a real and engaged concern for the other person, and in the health care profession, though we may have spent thousands of dollars on fashionable clothes and on hairstyling products and everything else to present an image of wellness to those around us, when we arrive at the doctor’s office, or the hospital or the nursing home, all of that has gone up in smoke and we can no longer pretend.  And so, our defenses are down.  We must acknowledge our need, and it hurts to be defenseless.  It hurts to be in need.

And so it is all the more important, when that person comes in hurting in both body and soul, that they be greeted as a beloved brother or sister, as a companion on this journey.  It is Christ Himself Who comes to us, for Christ said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to Me.”  And so it is that Christ Himself calls us, those of us who, meditating upon the Passion of Our Lord, say, “Oh, Lord, I would have been there with Veronica.  I would have wiped the blood, the sweat, and the tears from Your Face.  I would have put my shoulder under that rough wood of the Cross to help you with Simon.”  The Lord says, “That’s such a lovely, pious thought in the abstract.  Look.  Here I am.  Here I am before you, suffering in the poor and the sick.  Where is that willing shoulder now?  Where is that gentle caress to wipe away the tears, the blood and the sweat?  For here I am.  I stand before you in need.  You did it to Me.”

And so it is that Jesus Christ comes to us.  He comes to us in a privileged and marvelous way here in the Eucharist, the very Body and Blood of Christ, Soul and Divinity.  And it is by meeting Christ in the Sacraments, it is by hearing the voice of Christ as we listen in prayer and not simply speak in prayer, rattling off our wishes, that we hear His voice, we learn to recognize His presence, and then, when He comes to us, as Mother Teresa described, in a distressing disguise, we will see through that veil and find there Our Lord, our God Who calls us to love, to love because we ourselves have first been loved.  We ourselves, in our need and our weakness and our sickness, we have experienced the gift of His gentle, patient, forgiving love.  And as we rejoice in that gift which comes to support us in our moment of need, so it is that we cannot begrudge that same gentle, patient, forgiving love to those around us in their need.

The Lord Jesus calls each one of us to follow Him, and to follow Him as a health care worker means to follow Him into the hospice, not one hour on Sunday.  We’re with the Lord and say, “I’ll see you next Sunday, Jesus,” and we go off to our lives.  But know all of our lives are in relationship with the Lord Jesus, and so we follow Him into the workplace.  We follow Him into our homes.  We follow Him wherever we go, because He leads us.  And in the hospital He leads us to an encounter of love without pretense, without the pretense that we are going to be able to heal everyone that comes to us, either of their physical or spiritual ills.  He heals us of the pretense of wellness ourselves, so that it is with humility and solidarity that we tend to go sent to our care.  And it is in sickness that we see the marvel of God’s Cross detaching us from the things of this world, but not in a negative way.  We think always of what we are losing, but not what we’re gaining.  To be detached from this world is necessary, so that we can become attached to Him and to heaven.  And as Christians in the health care profession, we must always see ourselves as people of hope, as people who weigh the cost of the sacrifice before us in bodily pain and realize that what we stand to gain is so much greater.  And, of course, it is as humans that we enter into the care of the sick and realize that, if I have a headache or I have a fight with a loved one, or if a cold is getting to me and making me grouchy, I bring all of that to this encounter, and I need to begin to let that part of me die, not to struggle on to fight to survive – that part of me that is un-Christlike – but to let that die, so that it truly is the gentle love of Jesus that the patients and the co-workers find.  In finding Jesus in others, we are able to discover Jesus also within ourselves.  How marvelous, that despite language, despite class, despite religion, we are bound to one another in a way that none of those divisions could ever tear us apart – bound by God’s love, the love that He has placed within our hearts, the love He calls us to give to those in need.  

The Lord Jesus comes.  So often, when He walked on the face of this planet, He brought healing to the sick, but at other times He left the village, and His disciples asked, “Lord, why?  They are bringing more sick people.  There are more of them that need your care.  And Jesus said, “It is not for this that I have come.  I must go to the other towns and villages to proclaim the good news of the kingdom.”  So, we must be people of hope, even as we face death, realizing that Christ did not come to create paradise on earth, but rather to free us from the bonds of this earth, that we might be lifted up to where there are no more tears and no more pain or suffering, but peace and joy.  As we look upon one another and see the body, we must also see the soul, created in the image and likeness of God, with a dignity that surpasses anything that we could ever imagine, and we must learn to love – love each other in sickness and in health, and to love one another in a way that commits us as companions on this journey, the journey of love, that brings us to the fullness of that love in God’s tender embrace.