Today’s readings: 1 Kings 19:1-8 | Psalm 34 | James 5:13-16 | Mark 2:1-12
I first met Tom probably a few weeks after I started my first assignment as a priest at St. Raphael’s back in the summer of 2006. He was a young man, probably around my age, and was suffering the effects of cancer. His family had called because he wanted to see a priest and I had gone to anoint him at the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital. They didn’t think he was going to make it through the day, but just at the moment I got there, he had woken up and was talking to the family, the first time he had done that in a couple of days. I waited a while, then went in to talk to him, and after a while I did what we’re going to do today: I anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord, praying over him, just as St. James tells us we should do in today’s second reading.
During the conversation with Tom and his family, I learned that one of Tom’s favorite verses of Scripture was Isaiah 53:5: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” Throughout his illness, Tom, a man of great faith, had prayed the closing words of that verse – “By his stripes we were healed” – every day at 3:00, the Mercy Hour, the traditional time when we believe Jesus gave his life for us, enduring stripes and torture and the agony of the cross to heal our brokenness and give us access to the kingdom of God. He asked everyone he knew to pray for him in that way, and I promised I would do so.
I visited with Tom a couple of other times during his illness. About a month after I first met him, Tom passed from this life to the next, right around 3:00 in the afternoon, just after praying those words that had sustained him during his illness. In the homily at his funeral, I noted that there are all kinds of healing, and that I truly believed Tom had been healed in the greatest way that God can offer us, by bringing us to the Kingdom. By His stripes, Tom had indeed been healed. Tom was the first person I ever anointed and his was the first funeral I ever celebrated. I’ll never forget what a faithful man he was, even during his most difficult days.
We gather together today to celebrate the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The Church has this sacrament because of those directions from St. James: the sick are to call on the priests of the Church, and they are to anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith, we are told, will heal the sick person, and the Lord will raise that one up. And if the sick have committed any sins, they will be forgiven.
The Church has this sacrament also because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us. And that was to heal people. Deeply. Because what we ask for, what we are looking for, is something that can be kind of superficial. We look for mere physical healing. But God, in his mercy, knows what we really need; he knows what we would ask for, if we really knew how to ask for what would help us. What Jesus wants to do is to heal us from the inside out.
And so we see that in our Gospel reading this morning. Everyone thought that they knew what the paralytic needed. The crowd knew the man needed to be un-paralyzed. They couldn’t have missed the tell-tale signs of the man, immobile on a stretcher, being lowered to down to Jesus from the roof. The man’s friends probably thought they knew too: they had heard stories, most likely, about this miracle worker, and were anxious to bring their friend, long paralyzed, to the one person that could do something about it. The scribes thought they knew: they were watching very closely to see what Jesus would do in this pretty desperate situation: the man can’t even move, how could anyone save him, they thought. And even the paralytic himself probably thought he knew what he needed: long-standing illness can bring about a kind of short-sightedness that blinds us to what is best for us.
But the only one who knew – really knew – what this man needed was Jesus. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” We can just imagine all those brows furrowing up, can’t we? What did he say? His sins are forgiven? So what about his paralysis?
What they don’t know is that Jesus did address the man’s paralysis. There are all sorts of things that paralyze us: fear, certainly, but the most insidious cause of paralysis is sin. Sin binds us in ways of which we are not usually fully aware: sin cancels our freedom and makes us slaves to itself. Sin is always a step in the wrong direction, but more than that, it often produces shame, which inhibits us from getting back on the right path. Shame convinces us that we’re not worthy of grace or love so then we sin again, and the cycle continues. Nothing keeps us from moving forward like sin does. Nothing paralyzes us so insidiously as does sin.
Now, please carefully understand that I am not saying that illness is a punishment for sin. Jesus didn’t say that either. In fact, so as to dispel the then-common idea that illness was some kind of punishment for something someone did wrong, and to prove that he had power over every kind of healing, Jesus says to the man, “Rise, pick up your mat and go home.” And he does. The paralytic had been healed in just the way Jesus knew he needed to be healed – from the inside out. Clearing away what was binding him by sin, the man was open to receiving the grace of bodily healing as well.
So today’s readings demonstrate all the tools for healing the Church offers us. There is the forgiveness of sins, which we have celebrated earlier today in the Sacrament of Penance. There is the Anointing of the Sick, according to the instructions of Saint James, which we will celebrate in a moment. And the first reading points us to the most wonderful healing remedy there is: the Body and Blood of Christ.
Elijah, who has every right at this point in the story to lay down and summon death, hears from God that that is not God’s will. “Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you!” Indeed, the path to healing and wholeness is very often a long and arduous journey. We dare not make that journey without food to sustain us. And nothing sustains us on that journey like the Body and Blood of Christ. No matter where our journey takes us: be it to spiritual healing, physical healing, or even one day to eternal life, we need that food for the journey, which is the Eucharist, that splendid meal that reminds us that we are never alone no matter where life or its pains may take us. Our ministers of care could certainly tell us many stories of just how important this food is to those who are sick.
And so today, we bring all these tools to bear in the work of healing. Wherever you are right now, it is our prayer – the Church’s prayer – that God would grant you the healing that you truly need. That healing may be spiritual: reuniting you with God and others at the Altar of praise. That healing may be physical if that is what God knows is best for you.
We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases. But we can promise that, if you are properly disposed to receive grace, you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you in your suffering. Just like for Tom, the healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God. That’s why we are here today. That’s why we celebrate these beautiful sacraments with you today. We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us. And we know that Tom was absolutely right in his profession of faith in our Lord’s goodness: by his stripes we were healed.