08 February 2015

Homily - 8 February 2015 - Not all fevers end in death

The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

The mother-in-law of Simon Peter is not the only one among us who lays “sick with a fever” (Mark 1:30). Indeed, there are many fevers under which humanity falls and suffers. Many of these fevers are unavoidable and come to us all, but it is precisely for this reason that the Lord Jesus declares, “For this purpose have I come” (Mark 1:38).

The ruins of Simon Peter's house, and the base of the church built above
The fever of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law must have been truly severe, for she could not even welcome Jesus into her home with the basic requirements of hospitality. Her fever was debilitating, as ours so often are as well. Our fevers – of one kind or another - weigh so heavily upon us that the service of Christ, the growth in virtue and holiness – our true happiness – becomes quite difficult, and sometimes seems impossible.

Elsewhere, Christ, the Divine Physician, says, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Mark 2:17). The fevers from which we suffer are many.  There is the fever of anger or greed; of lust or envy; of sloth or gluttony or pride.  There is also the fever of “ideologies, idolatry, [and the] forgetfulness of God.”[1] The greatest of these – and the one that gives rise to them all – is the forgetfulness of God, the failure to recognize him and to recognize the beauty and wonder of his will for our lives.

Job surely could only utter his words of great despair – “I shall not see happiness again” (Job 7:7) – because he had forgotten God, the One “who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). Do we not also forget the Lord? Do we not also ask with Job, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery” (Job 7:1)?

In the classic movie The Princess Bride, the Dread Pirate Roberts says to the Princess Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” The Psalmist put it somewhat differently: “Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone” (Psalm 90:10).
Whenever we find ourselves with these sentiments in our hearts, we frequently turn inward and see only our suffering, which becomes a fever of its own. Indeed,
Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers, too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.[2]
Yes, life may be filled with the various fevers of pain and sorrow and labor, but, as the Lord said to his disciples upon receiving word of the illness of his friend, Lazarus, “This illness is not to end in death” (John 11:4). And because it is not to end in death, the quiet joy of God’s love can be felt.

We cry out and ask of the Lord, “When shall I arise,” when shall I feel your love (Job7:4)? We shall soon arise and feel his love, for he has come among us. On his glorious Cross, he “took away our infirmities and bore our diseases” (cf. Matthew 8:17). He has come to remove our fevers, to grasp our hands, and to lift us up, just as he did with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (cf. Mark 1:31).

Indeed, this is the very message that the Apostle Paul is obliged to preach (cf. I Corinthians9:16). It is the good news of victory over sin and death that the Lord has won for us. No longer are Job’s words true: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come an end without hope” (Job 7:6); because “Christ Jesus our hope” (cf. I Timothy 1:1) is risen, we, too, are filled with hope, for “the Lord sustains the lowly” (Psalm 147:5)! Life becomes a drudgery only for the one who has no hope, who has forgotten God. The one who remembers God has hope; he has Christ; he has everything!

If all of this is true, if Christ truly has destroyed sin and death, why does it so often seem that so much of life is filled with heartache and pain? Why does life seem to be a drudgery?

Saint Josephine Bakhita
We see a shining example of this hope – and an answer to this question - in the life of Saint Josephine Bakhita, whose feast day is today. She was kidnapped by slave traders when she about nine years old and was sold five times in the Sudanese slave markets. Her masters treated her very harshly and beat her every day; Josephine bore the proof of her sufferings in the form of 144 scars. Around her thirteenth birthday, she was sold again in 1882, this time Venetian merchant.
Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father's right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God.[3]
The hope and love she found in the One who is both Master and Teacher gave opened a new horizon to her life (cf. John 13:13). This new horizon allowed her to say, in words that seem quite jarring to us: “If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today.” From the midst of the fever of slavery, she found the quiet joy of God’s love; the Lord Jesus took her by the hand lifted her up, and she responded by serving him and entered the religious life in the Congregation Canossian Sisters. Not all fevers end in death.

The Lord calls us to follow after him, saying to us, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke9:23). This is the invitation of the Lord, to carry our cross with him, to share in his suffering so as to share also in his glory. This was the realization of Saint Paul when he wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Jesus knows well that everyone is looking for him and so he has set out to preach and teach in every place (cf. Mark 1:37).
And he does so in all ages; he takes us by the hand with his Word, thereby dispelling the fog of ideologies and forms of idolatry. He takes us by the hand in the sacraments; he heals us from the fever of our passions and sins through absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He gives us the possibility to raise ourselves, to stand before God and before men and women. And precisely within this context of the Sunday liturgy, he Lord comes to meet us; he takes us by the hand, raises us, and heals us ever anew with the gift of his words, the gift of himself.[4]
We see the proper response of those who have been lifted up by the Lord in the example of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law: she immediately began to serve Jesus (cf. Mark 1:31). The service of hospitality, which previously she was unable to render, she now renders gladly and willingly.

Jesus still seeks us out to take us by the hand and lift us up. When he comes to us to take away our fever, in whatever form it may be, will we allow him to take our hand? Will we resist him as he seeks to raise us up? Or will we seek instead to wallow in our fevers and refuse to serve him in love, as both Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and Saint Josephine Bakhita did?

Pope Francis reminds us that, “Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love.”[5] Let us, then, seek to humbly yield to his love so that our broken hearts may be healed.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 5 February 2006.
[2] Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 2.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 3.
[4] Ibid., Homily, 5 February 2006.
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 265.

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