The Lord Heals the Broken – hearted
Job 7: 1 4, 6 – 7
1 Cor 9: 16 – 19, 22 – 23
Mark 1: 29 – 39.
We are all familiar with suffering in one shape or form, whether it is physical, emotional, mental or spiritual suffering. There is no getting away from suffering; it comes to us all and it comes in different guises at different times of our lives. To live is to suffer. Regardless of our differences, suffering is something we all have in common. Some people seem to suffer more than others. Yet, it is difficult to measure suffering, especially in others. Some who do not seem to be suffering can be in great pain and others who seem to be suffering greatly can have a deep peace. The cry of Job in today’s reading is one that comes out of deep suffering. He is in a very dark place indeed. Not only has he lost his health, his property and members of his family but he seems to have lost God. He had been living an exemplary life and he cannot understand why God has allowed so much misfortune to befall him. The God whom he worshipped when times were good now seems a complete stranger to him. The God to whom he related as a friend now seems to have become his enemy. The experience of loss, whether it is the loss of health or property or loved ones, can bring on something of a spiritual crisis. Some can be tempted to abandon God, when their prayers out of the depths are not heard. They feel angry at God; they sense that their trust in God has not been vindicated. That is very much the place where Job finds himself in today’s first reading. Job in that sense is every man or woman. The literary figure of Job is a very authentic depiction of the dark side of human experience, indeed, the dark side of faith in God.
The Belfast-born writer C.S. Lewis was both a great intellectual and a man of great faith. He set out to give a rational explanation for the Christian vision of life. In 1940 he wrote a book called The Problem of Pain in which he brought his intellect and his faith to bear on the problem of suffering. However, twenty one years, in 1961, he wrote a very different book, called, A Grief Observed. In that book he recognizes that his rational, cerebral, faith has taken something of a battering. The book consists of the painful and brutally honest reflections of a man whose wife has died, slowly and in pain, from cancer. The book gives a vivid description of his own reaction, as a man of faith, to his wife’s death. His rational faith fell to pieces when confronted with suffering of a devastatingly personal kind. He writes at one point, ‘Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and the sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.’ The name of Lewis’s wife was Joy. He had earlier written a book called Surprised by Joy in which he wrote about the impact meeting her had on his life. His book A Grief Observed has received a wide readership because of his authentic and moving account of the impact of bereavement. Even though his rational, cerebral faith took something of a battering because of Joy’s death, Lewis did not lose his faith. Through the darkness of this experience he claims to have come to love his wife more truly. He writes that God had helped him to see that because the love he and his wife had for each other had reached its earthly limit, it was ready for its heavenly fulfilment.
Faith has to come to terms with the cross and it is at the foot of the cross that faith can be purified and deepened. Jesus himself entered fully into the darkness of human suffering. In today’s second reading, Paul says of himself, ‘For the weak, I made myself weak.’ That is certainly true of Jesus. He entered fully into the weakness of the human condition. Elsewhere, in one of his letters, Paul says of Christ that ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ On the cross Jesus was at his weakest and poorest; it was on Calvary that, in the words of Lewis, Jesus went to God and found a door slammed in his face, as he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Yet, that cry of desolation is itself an act of faith; it is the language faith uses when confronted with the harrowing darkness of loss. God did not forsake Jesus, but brought through death into the fullness of life. The Jesus who was crucified in weakness is the same risen Lord who is with us in our own experiences of suffering and desolation, just as he was with the suffering and the broken in today’s gospel. He is with us as one who knows our experience from the inside. Having gone down into the depths and having moved beyond the depths into a fuller life, he can enable us to do the same. He is the good shepherd who, even when we walk through the valley of darkness, is there with his crook and his staff, leading us to springs of living water.
Man born of woman is destined to suffer. Suffering causes brokenness. Therefore brokenness is a universal human experience. Job’s cry of despair, wrung out from sheer meaningfulness of existence, is only a past echo of an ever-present phenomenon. The letter of a 14 year – war – old prisoner of war to his parents testifies eloquently to this fact:
“If the heavens were paper and all people ink, I could not describe my grief at everything I see about me. The prison camp is located in a clearing. From early morning they compel us to work in the woods. My feet are bleeding, for someone took my shoes. We work the entire day with next to nothing to eat, and at night we sleep on the ground (someone took our cots as well). Every night drunken soldiers come and beat us with blocks of wood, and the bruises make my body look like a charred piece of wood. Now and then someone tosses us a few carrots or a beet and what happens is a scandal: people trying to snatch a little piece or a leaf for themselves. The day before yesterday two boys escaped. Then they lined us up in a row and every fifth person was shot dead. I was not shot but I know I shall not get out of here alive. I say farewell, dear Mamma, dear Papa, dear brothers and sisters, and I weep….”
Brokenness is too pervasive to be elusive. How can humans face it? Confronted with it, the faith of many has fumbled and faltered. Unable to bear it, not a few have committed suicide. Here comes the Good News: The Lord heals the broken-hearted. Thus must have come from personal experience, for the psalmist is no stranger to suffering, betrayal and despair.
More fundamentally if the Lord does not heal the broken hearted. He is not what he claims to be. If He is what he claims to be, there is no good news for man, and Scripture is at best a fine fairytale, at worst a colossal deception.
On the last two Sundays we contemplated Jesus as the manifestation of God’s goodness and love in person and action. In today’s Gospel too, Jesus acts cogently and coherently, vindicating the age-old claims made by and for God. In curing the sick, comforting the sorrowful and freeing the possessed, Jesus is healing the broken hearted. Thus Jesus is what God has said He is and He shows what He will do. Jesus thus mirrors unmistakably His father’s goodness and love in the murky areas of our life. In order to be His Father’s perfect image and to mirror Him clearly to men, Jesus has to be in communion with His Father. Thus we find Him, a great while before day, alone at prayer (Gospel). To be all to all (second reading) Jesus must be first with the Father of all, the source of all goodness, love and comfort. In solidarity with humans, Jesus is not merely the healer. He is the broken, wounded healer. With His stripes we have been healed. This is the good news, this is Jesus in person and action.
What is our response to persons in pain? To some extent, we can see that response at work in the Gospel passage: the sick come to Jesus, and he heals them. He does not debate the meaning of suffering — he stretches out his hand and heals. Our first reaction is to think that here we cannot be imitators of Christ. But that is only true if we take the miracles of Jesus in a narrow sense. We cannot make illness go away with a simple action, as Christ could. But we can respond, and we can help to ease the suffering. We can let Christ himself act in us to fill the loneliness, care for the sick, to be with the fearful and the heartbroken.