St Mary’s, Robinson
It’s winter, and although it’s been pretty mild so far, winter brings with it the cold and flu season, and the majority of us usually catch a bug of one sort or another. My own personal pattern, for as long as I can remember, has been to get sick in November, and then get through the rest of the season without too much trouble. This year it was actually early December, but otherwise it’s been true to form. For the last several years, we’ve heard a lot of frightening speculation in the media about the possibility of a worldwide devastating flu epidemic.
But even without anything that drastic, sickness is ubiquitous. It’s all around us. From ear infections in babies to colds and flu to more serious life-impairing and life-threatening conditions, we all get sick, and we all know and love people who get sick. It has ever been so, even though tremendous advances in the practice of public health and medical care in the developed world have freed us from many crippling or deadly conditions. And it was even more so the experience of people who lived in first century Palestine, where Jesus lived and walked and exercised his ministry.
Since Epiphany, this is the third Sunday where our gospel reading has come from Mark, as will be the case for most of the rest of this year, between now and next Advent. Yet, we’re still in Chapter One, and we’re not even finished with it yet! Even in the early part of Mark’s gospel, even in this very early phase in Jesus’ public “career”, we are told that his fame is constantly spreading. And what is this fame is based on? To some extent, as we learned last week, it’s based on the authoritative manner of his teaching. But primarily, Jesus’ fame arises from his extraordinary and astonishing ministry of healing the sick, liberating people from diseases and crippling disabilities. Both elsewhere in Mark and in the three other gospels, healing is a central element in Jesus’ ministry. It is probably the one thing for which is most widely known, and is the single best explanation for the crowds of people he seems to consistently attract.
It’s tempting, I know, for us to be envious of those crowds who followed Jesus around and saw him make blind people see and deaf people hear and paralyzed people walk, and even, on occasion, bring the dead back to life. We think to ourselves that any doubts we might have about our faith would dissolve if we were able to witness such miraculous events. The fact is, though, miracles like that still happen. They don’t make the headline news, but extraordinary healings that cannot be explained by means of medical science, and are often in defiance of “scientific” expectations, take place virtually every day. Jesus still heals through prayer and the sacramental ministry of the church. Tumors have been known to disappear on the very eve of surgery, and this has been a continuing element in the Church’s collective experience for 2000 years. There may even be somebody here right now who has experienced such a miracle, or who knows someone who has. Through prayer and laying-on-of-hands and anointing with oil, people are regularly healed of back pain and cancer, headaches and heart disease, and we give thanks for these wonderful signs of God’s victory over the powers of evil, God’s triumph over the forces of sin and death.
The problem is, not everybody is healed. In fact, more people are not healed than are healed.
And those who are healed inevitably get sick again and, in fact, die eventually. So we’re confused. It seems like God is toying with us, playing with our emotions for his own amusement, healing some and not others. We’re tempted to rationalize these inconsistencies by assuming that those who are healed must have some superior quality of faith or moral virtue that makes them more deserving. But if we just keep our eyes open long enough, we see that this is just not true. I’ve heard stories of someone who has come to faith in Christ virtually yesterday, a naïve new believer with very little theological learning or experience in disciplined and regular prayer, who gets healed after one prayer, while a pious and devoted lifetime Christian still suffers after years of persevering prayer. It doesn’t seem to make sense. What could God be thinking?
So, once again, we’re tempted to be envious of Jesus’ contemporaries, who could grasp the hem of his garment and feel his loving touch on their afflicted bodies, or at least look him in the eye and ask him the hard questions about what God is thinking. But, even if we could somehow magically transport ourselves to that time and place, I fear we would soon be disappointed. Mark tells us how Peter’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and Jesus “took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her.” That was a wonderful event, and everybody rejoiced and gave thanks. But here’s the deal: Peter’s mother-in-law eventually got sick again, and died. Mark also relates how “the whole city” thronged the door of the house, and Jesus healed an untold number. Scores—if not hundreds—of people came to that house in Capernaum in one day and were healed of “various diseases.” They were delighted, and Jesus’ fame increased. But what Mark’s gospel does not tell us, what we have to infer on our own, is that each and every one of them eventually got sick again and died of something. No doubt, some of them felt the way we feel, that God was being capricious, entertaining himself at their expense.
In order to understand the experience of miraculous healing, and not find ourselves angry with God in the process, it helps to see these events from God’s point of view. You may be aware that fully one-third of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life, from the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday through his passion, death, and resurrection. Mark may even have been so bold as to say that God does not want us to see Christ as a healer—or a teacher, or a prophet, or a leader, for that matter—God doesn’t want us to see Jesus as anything apart from the cross. None of those other things matter if we do not see them through the lens of the cross. We know who Jesus is authentically only as we know him crucified and risen, and ourselves as participating in that dying and rising.
There’s a theological shorthand for this; we call it the “paschal mystery.” The paschal mystery binds together and sees as one event the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The paschal mystery is the principal thing we “remember” when we celebrate the Eucharist. In the context of the paschal mystery, we can look “back,” as it were, and see the extraordinary healings that Jesus performed directly, as well as those that he has continued to perform in response to the prayers of his people—we can see these extraordinary healings not simply for what they are in themselves, but as prefigurements, types, foreshadowings; not the thing itself, but anticipatory glimpses—of the permanents healing secured for us on the cross.
Because of its character as a sign, a premonition, a sneak preview, miraculous healing cannot be conjured up or confected “on demand.” God is not bound by the terms of any covenant to make it so. The paschal mystery, however, is a different matter. God has bound himself to the sacraments as “sure and certain” means of grace; it’s part of the covenant he has made with us in Christ. In the sacraments—particularly in the Eucharist, but also in Unction—we leap ahead into that time when our redemption is complete, when all pain, disease, anxiety, fear and misery are banished, and all tears wiped away. In the meantime, as we strain forward and long for the completion of our redemption, we rejoice for those premonitions of that redemption as may be granted us in the form of miraculous healing. But more importantly, we come time and time again back to this holy table, as a hundred generations of Christians have done, to participate in the paschal mystery and live for a shining moment in the fullness of God’s kingdom, where there is no more need for miraculous healing, because there is no more sickness.