13th Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Meaning of Suffering

Today's readings 

God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.

I had finally gotten around to writing out some Christmas cards a few days before that great feast last year. I was still at school at Mundelein, and we didn't get out for Christmas break for a day or two. We had been doing the kinds of things you do before Christmas: the guys on my floor had gone out with the Rector for pizza. There was a little snow falling, which meant that there were some accidents here and there and bad traffic, but we all got back to the seminary safe.

Well, my heart wasn't really in the writing out of the Christmas cards – I'm just terrible at that. But the alternative was studying for a test, and well, my heart wasn't in that either. Besides, the test was after Christmas break, so it could wait. I was about halfway through the address book, I think, when I got a page from the fire department I worked for. Usually the pages didn't apply to us, and I wasn't on call that night, but this one got my attention: Chaplains needed for fatal accident involving a child.

Of course, all the emotions you'd think someone would experience hearing that went through me. I called my friend who was on call that night, and he was getting information from the department and said he'd call me back. He called a couple of minutes later and said if I wanted to come along, he could probably use the help. The family had their own clergy with them, so they didn't need us; we waited at the station for our people to come back so we could talk to them. Eventually, we were joined by another of our chaplains, which turned out to be a good thing.

The call was handled by our department and another one nearby. The other department could not reach their chaplains, so I went with one of my friends to the other station. We waited for their guys to come back, and after they had emptied their ambulance, we were able to sit down and talk with them. In all my time as a fire chaplain, I never had a more significant conversation. These guys had been through a terrible situation, trying to save the life of a child, and the child had died on the way to the hospital. We talked for over two hours as they told us all the details and all of the emotions they were feeling. Fire and medic personnel almost never get to the point of freely sharing their emotions, so this was a pretty awesome talk.

One of the men was Catholic and he was the one who had the task of extracting the child from the car. His enduring question was, why did this innocent child have to suffer and die? There was no answer for that question, but my fellow chaplain was able to give some meaning to it all when he pointed out that the child died in front of Marytown, a Franciscan monastery near our seminary that provides 24 hour exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He pointed out that he died near the physical manifestation of Christ's own body, and that Jesus was always letting the children come to him.

Today's readings bring this whole question back for me in such a poignant way. Why do people have to suffer? Why do good people and innocent children suffer? Why do people have to die? These are ever-present questions for us, I think, and this is where the rubber meets the road as far as our faith goes. Some people take great comfort in their faith when they have to deal with suffering. Some people even find their faith as they work through the pain of it all. And some people lose their faith, asking how God could let them suffer, or let a loved one suffer, if God loves them so much.

God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the earth are wholesome…

These words from today's first reading may bring up more questions than they answer for us. If God did not make death and if he made everything to have being and wholesome life, why does that plan go so often awry? Why are the living destroyed? Why is our world so often far less than wholesome? The Wisdom writer gives us a hint at an answer:

But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.

The author is not saying that the person experiencing suffering and death did something to deserve it, and that's why they're suffering. That was, actually, a long-held belief in Jewish theology. But this reading represents a break from that kind of thought. The author is merely acknowledging that there is evil in the world, and that evil is the root of sin, suffering and death. All you have to do is flip on the evening news to know that's true.

But suffering never seems to make sense for us. We may never get the answers to all our questions this side of the kingdom of God. Ask the woman with the hemorrhage in today's Gospel reading. She put up with her condition for twelve years – twelve years! In that society, such a condition made her ritually unclean, and so she could not take any part in the ritual or social life of the community. How awful that must have been for her. And to make matters worse, she was treated by doctors who not only did not cure her, but also took advantage of her, leaving her penniless.

How many of us can identify with that woman? How many of us are here today, suffering from some illness that never seems to get better, or going through a family crisis that never seems to go away, or living with depression that seems to have no end? How many of us have worked long and hard on problems in our life or with our health with little success? How many of us have been left bankrupt – spiritually or emotionally, at least – in our attempts to put an end to our pain?

Perhaps if we identify with the woman with the hemorrhage, we can also imitate her. In a great act of faith, she reached out to Christ, who not only cured her illness, but freed her of her social stigma and ritual impurity. Her touch of faith – which was a totally taboo thing for her to do, because it would have made Jesus ritually impure if he chose to acknowledge that – that touch of faith was rewarded with a new life.

That can be hard for us to hear, when we don't really have that same opportunity. We can't see Jesus walking by and reach out and touch his robe. And maybe all of our attempts to reach out to him seem to have gone unrewarded. I'm not going to tell you that one act of faith will make all of your problems go away.

But what I will say is this: as I have walked with people who have suffered, those who have reached out to Jesus in faith have not gone unrewarded. Maybe their suffering continued in some way, but in Christ they found the strength to walk through it with dignity and peace. Maybe Jesus won't always stop the bleeding of our hurts and inadequacies and woundedness. But through his own blood, he will always redeem us. We who are disciples need to make those acts of faith if we are to live what we believe.

We come to the Eucharist today with our lives in various stages of grace and various stages of disrepair. At the Table of the Lord, we offer our lives and our suffering and our pain. We bring our faith, wherever we are on the journey, and reach out in that faith to touch the body of our Lord. We approach the Cup of Life, and whatever emptiness is in us is filled up with grace and healing love, poured out in the blood of Christ. As we go forth to love and serve the Lord this day, all of our problems may very well remain unsolved. Our suffering and pain may very well be with us still. But in our faith, perhaps they can be transformed, or at least maybe we can be transformed so that we can move through that suffering and pain with dignity and peace. And as we go forth, may we hear our Lord saying to us the same words he said
to the woman with the hemorrhage: go in peace, your faith has saved you.