Saturday, May 28, 2016

Homily for the Fifth Day of Parish Novena 2016: "Visiting the Sick"

Preacher: Fr Simon Yong SJ

Today’s topic at first glance looks like an easy walk in the park but on second thought, it is not as easy as it looks. Our spotlight shines on the visitation of the sick. If you like, what is spiritual in comforting the afflicted or consoling of the sorrowful is made corporal through the visitation of the sick and elderly. So, rightfully, after the homily we will have the elderly and the sick stand up to be prayed over.

I alluded to the difficulty of accompanying the sick on the 1st day of our Novena arising from the helplessness to ameliorate a situation. Another constraint we face is time. The demands of family and career present a challenge to being physically available to a sick person. Remember the promise of the 60s? When time-saving gadgets or devices invaded our lives, they were supposed to free us for family, friends and fun. That did not happen as life, instead of slowing down for us to enjoy, seemed to have cranked up into the fast lane and nothing in the near future has revealed that our craving for the instantaneous will diminish.

But, is the lack of time a good excuse for our absence from the sick? Or is there a deeper reason for our seeming fear of the sick?

There is a connexion between on the one hand, sickness (diseases, illnesses, psychoses) and on the other, sin. You can say that when a person sins, sickness is sure to follow. For example, lying or telling lies. A person who lies habitually will have to construct one lie to cover another lie. After a while his life will be an entangled web of deceit and his conduct, demeanour and mannerism will soon slide onto a shifty and slimy slope. You must have come across characters who ask you for money and they spin a tale so tall that it makes 1MDB sound like a harmless fairy tale. Or if you eat more than you should every day, the sin of gluttony will soon be brought to bear in the breakdown of the body’s integrity. Gluttony is frequently accompanied by the giddy trio of friends—elevated cholesterol, sugar and blood pressure and not to mention an expanding waistline.

Sin has an effect on our well-being either physical, psychological or spiritual. But, with regard to sin’s effect on us, two contrasting points can be raised with regard to the connexion between sin and sickness.

Firstly, we have learnt how to excuse ourselves from the responsibility for our actions. In this endeavour, we have reversed the relationship from sin as having an effect to sickness as the cause of our sins. Two illustrations may help. One, gluttony may manifest itself through binge eating or supersizing our happy meals. So, when I am depressed, I tend to binge eat to feed my depression. Or two, I suffer from a mental disorder which is marked by compulsiveness. I take things not belonging to me that are of either of not value or I have no need of. My depression and my kleptomania have caused me to overeat and steal. Hence, I cannot be held responsible. Like Bart Simpson: I didn’t do it and for every disorder you can dream of, psychology has found a sickness for every sin in the book.

But that is not the whole story which brings me to the second point and this is important.

The connexion between sin and sickness may also be analogical in the sense the sickness is an image of sin and not an evidence of sin. The Jews believe that sin is the cause of sickness. The NT is replete with such corollary examples. The Pharisees (the so-called separated one) who are keen on the boundary separating the pure from the profane, find themselves at odd with many of the practices of Jesus. He broke many taboos by erasing the border between clean and contaminated. He ate with sinners, He touched lepers etc. But, when the man born blind was brought to Him in John 9, the question that followed reflected the conventional wisdom of that time. They asked, “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind”? We know the response given by the Lord: “Neither. His blindness was not a result of sin but that God’s work might be made manifest”. Here, we find the analogical connexion between sin and sickness. Sickness is not always the result of sin but rather it is an image of sinfulness which means that sickness is not always evidence of the sinfulness of the victim.

Otherwise, how can we explain the Sinless One according to the descriptions of the Suffering Servant in Prophet Isaiah: He bore our pains and carried our sorrows. He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our infirmities. Physicality is sacramental in the sense that Christ in addition to touching lepers, He ate with sinners, allowed a woman with haemorrhage to touch His cloak and consorted with the Gentiles.

The Sacrament of Anointing follows the example of Christ in recognising sin, if present, to be absolved through Sacramental Confession when needed and also dissolving the barrier that isolates the one who is sick. He has helped us do what is needed. He made clean was what deemed unclean because the physical grossness of pus, mucus, sores, vomit, blood, broken bones are not the effects of sin, nor are they the reasons for our shying away from the sick. You know our hospitals are symbolised by a Crescent for obvious reason. But, the institution of the hospital as a Catholic gift to humanity actually grew out of Jesus’ embrace of the sick person. So, time is not only of the essence but also fear or the lack of courage is. We may like to think that we have outgrown superstition but the truth is, we are still full of taboos even though we may have arrived at sophistication. Many are afraid of sick people because they fear infection or contamination and as a result, isolation.

Even as we speak of the hospital as a gift of the Church to the world, the hospital is also a symbol of the Church. And it flows from yesterday’s theme on “instructing, counselling and admonishing”. Some saints are called Doctors of the Church because through their teachings—instructing, counselling and admonishing—the infirmities of ignorance, doubt and sin are dispelled thereby healing is brought upon the soul. In the Orthodox tradition, the Crozier that a Bishop carries is actually replaced by the common symbol associated with health—the caeduceus with the intertwined serpents that recall the episode in the desert where Moses was instructed to mount the bronze serpents upon his staff. The Church has the medicine of immortality and what Pope Francis has done is to highlight the Church not only as a hospital but also a field hospital for the wounded. In a nutshell if you want to understand the mind of Pope Francis, the field hospital is aptly an excellent symbol because the foremost mission of the Church is the salvation of souls and what a messy task that is.

Sad though, the more developed a society becomes, the greater is the tendency to marginalised the sick or even do away with them in the name of “quality of life”. But, the sick ground our feet upon the earth of mortality recalling what a German philosopher says: We are beings unto death. For each child born, the natural thing is to watch him grow up and when he has reached his 40s, we joke that it is downhill from then on. But the more profound truth about human existence is that the minute a child is born he is already cruising inevitably along the highway of death. At funerals I tell people, “Every breath you take, you are one breath closer to death” and as I finish this sentence, you are already 3 breaths nearer to death.

This is not supposed to depress but to prompt you that the sick lay claim on our compassion and pity as they hint to us the reality of our mortality and that their weakness and frailty will also be ours no matter how many “forever young pills you pop”, and like my favourite fat lady, no matter how many nips, snips and tucks you undergo, one day you will be like them. The sick remind us to order and set your priorities right.

Finally, the extra-biblical personage of Veronica (whose memory is preserved in our rosary mysteries) stands as a powerful reminder that the care of the sick requires moral courage. If you remember, the Disciples had deserted the Lord. The only help He got was from a stranger—Simon of Cyrene. Almost everyone along the Via Dolorosa was braying for His blood. She would have to muster enough courage to breach the wall of rejection and exclusion in order to wipe the face of Christ. For that she was rewarded with the imprint of His suffering face on the sweat cloth or Sudarium or Manopello and not least also on her soul.[1] She should be a patron saint for those who want to step outside the circle of comfort and convenience to attend to those who are sick. They will continue to claim to our attention and we are obliged to come to their aid according to our ability and their need as Matthew 25 is pretty clear that they are sacramental signs of Christ for us: I was sick and you visited me.

[1]The etymology of the name Veronica itself is suggestive. It means “True Image”. Perhaps the inclusion of “her” memory is testament to the need for an intensified search for Christ the Lord. The more we desire Him, the greater will our reward be. The reward we are accustomed to takes a monetary form. The reward for our desire will be God Himself…

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