This Sunday’s readings deal with death—and there is no getting around it—people have struggled with this question and the inevitability of our finiteness since the Garden of Eden—so we can hardly think we will be exempt from the struggle—the pain of death in our lives. Why do people have to die, especially the ones we love and care most about in our lives? That is the initial, albeit, selfish question that we all struggle with. Beyond that, as we grow to hopefully become more altruistic, we extend our care to the wider world and ask the same questions that involve more of humanity—why is there fighting and killing, war; poverty that takes life just as surely as a gun would? Why is there ignorance that blinds people to all that they can be?—and the list goes on that makes life less than good and abundant. Pope Francis has basically asked our world these questions in his new encyclical, Laudato Si and has challenged us to look for the answers and he is wise enough to know that we all have to be part of the process.
Paul looks at this issue too today as he tries to instruct the Corinthians in how to care for others and for themselves, suggesting, striking a balance. He reminds the Corinthians of some words of wisdom and compassion: “The one who gathered much had no excess, and the one who gathered little, did not go short.” We are called my friends, to make sure that everyone has enough. When I first put down some of these thoughts three years ago, these were topics of concern in our country, as they are today. Unfortunately, we have not yet allowed ourselves to see how we might fix this imbalance, although there is hope in the Supreme Court decisions concerning Obamacare and Gay Marriage rights this past week.
As we look at the readings chosen by the Church today for us to ponder, we see clearly how people have struggled through time with these same questions. We even see in the Scriptures in general—over and above the chosen readings for this Sunday, that there isn’t a clear answer we can point to and say, “Ah—there it is, that explains why we die, why we suffer.”
In Genesis, Chapter 2, we read that God is responsible for death, “The moment you eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you are surely doomed to die.” In Genesis, Chapter 3, we read that the punishment for sin is not death, but pain and suffering—“until you return to the ground, from which you were taken.” Now clearly these two stories don’t agree and it is important for us to understand that this ancient story is a reinterpretation of several earlier myths made into a new story.
The Israelite version of Genesis is trying to explain and make sense of evil in a world that was created good. And apparently, they didn’t do such a good job of it, because people still want to know why a good God allows bad things to happen to good people. Unlike earlier peoples who believed the world was made up of two warring deities, one responsible for good, one for evil; we are monotheists—believing that one God is responsible for everything and therein lays our problem—perhaps.
Now the Wisdom selection–our first reading for today makes some interesting claims: 1) God did not make death and 2) by envy of the devil, death entered the world. All that can be said is that this is an example of later generations trying to make sense of the Genesis passage that seems to be saying that God is the author of death, either as a punishment or as an end to suffering. Also, it is interesting that Genesis doesn’t name the devil as the serpent and doesn’t mention envy. So much for the literalists out there!
Our Church follows a 3-year cycle of readings that instruct us on how to live our Christian lives. Since we last shared these readings, three years ago, that ask us to look at death, some of you have lost significant loved ones and friends—some life partners. Each year that passes brings each of us closer to our own deaths. Death is a reality and it can be painful when it happens to us or a loved one. It is painful for many reasons. Perhaps, if the death was unexpected, we regret what we did or didn’t do or weren’t able to do—maybe we are just grieving the loss of someone who meant so much to us.
Sometimes our society wants us to hurry our grieving along. Some religious folk might insinuate that to grieve the loss of a loved one is bad or lacking in faith. I would say that such thinking is misguided. It is good to remember that even Jesus, in his humanity, wept at the death of a friend. Death is an end to a part of life and it is the human condition to grieve the loss.
In bereavement work, we say, if you can get up each day, put one foot in front of the other, engage life—then grieving it quite normal. We never forget, nor should we, the loss of someone we loved. Sometimes we can only walk blindly through the mystery as did Jairus, the synagogue official who sought healing for his daughter from Jesus, even after he learned that she had in fact, died.
Hope is what we ultimately seek as we ponder the death of family members, friends, and our own death, for that matter. It might be that rather than questioning, “Why we die?”—we should ask instead, “How do we deal with the inevitability of death,” when we know that in fact it will come to each of us one day? When we are well, most of us don’t look forward to our lives ending—we look to the joy of experiencing life, even with its ups and downs. This life is all that we know—the life beyond, promised us, which we believe in, we don’t know, and can only walk in faith toward. When we or our loved ones are incurably ill, we almost welcome death to have the suffering over with—several in our community were there this past spring. Your walk in faith, for, and with them called for great strength and patience.
The Gospel today gives us some insights into how we can deal with the inevitability of death—two life situations—the woman with the hemorrhage and Jairus, the synagogue official whose daughter has died. First off, don’t you wish you knew the name of the woman with the hemorrhage? This is quite a person of faith—a real gutsy woman. As you know, women had no status in this culture, so neither of the females is named in today’s gospel. These wonderful stories proclaim the compassion of Jesus for those who suffer—reminding us of what we can expect when suffering comes to us. We must always remember to call on Jesus to be our strength in these circumstances. Jesus demonstrates power over death in both situations—and both people needed a great deal of faith and trust to act as they did.
Our unnamed woman who was ostracized by the community over a flow of blood—something not understood, was set apart and looked down on out of ignorance. I think it is significant that she isn’t even given an identity, but known only by her affliction. People do have identities, and are not merely afflictions or individual body parts that need fixing. We do need to take them seriously—hear their stories as did Jesus in today’s gospel. It is good to remember that our brother Jesus was always turning things upside-down and calling us to be more than our humanity wants to be at times.
As an aside, this past week, a lively discussion ensued on Facebook, much to my delight, over the phrasing, “you guys.” As advocates of the term will tell you, this phrasing means to include everyone and is used unfortunately at times, when only women are present. This for so long has seemed to be my issue alone and I have been told by my loving husband that this is one that I’m not going to win, even though he is very supportive. So, to see a group of people advocating that we find words that do include us all made my heart sing!
Also, this past week, I have been part of the General Assembly of the Rochester Franciscans as a co-journer. Nancy Sylvester, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister was our main presenter and she helped us to understand in depth how different people come at the same problem with a different viewpoint based on what has influenced them in their lives: culture, tradition, religion, science, and so to understand and work with each other whether a community, an organization, a family, whatever the group, we need to acquire good listening skills, patience and compassionate hearts. And when we disagree with someone, we all know how difficult it can be to hang in there and find out why someone feels and acts as they do, because if we would ask another question rather than walking away in frustration; we might come to understanding. This kind of process is very important when working in groups of people that we truly care about.
Looking again at the poor, unnamed woman—we already know of all the taboos that women in this society lived with that made them unclean each month. This poor woman experienced hemorrhages for 12 years—we can only imagine the pain and isolation with which she lived. Perhaps this made her faith all the stronger—she may even have felt that she had nothing to lose in asking for Jesus’ help. Often friends, this is the case—out of great suffering can come great strength of character—great faith—great determination. I know if I were to ask each of you in this community who have walked through the death of a life-long partner, you would tell me that while painful, you are stronger for what it called forth from you.
Focusing again on Jairus, he believed not only that Jesuscould heal, but more importantly, that he would heal. Jairus and the unnamed woman trusted this truth. Jairus came to Jesus knowing that his daughter was gravely ill and even when he learned that she had died, he blindly trusted.
Even though the two stories offered today for our reflection remind us of Jesus’–of God’s great compassion for us, they might mislead us too—if we think our faith will ultimately save us from death. Even though the unnamed woman and Jairus’ daughter experienced healing in time, they were not saved from the death that would eventually overtake them. God always means to heal us for there are many ways to heal—in other words—God always answers our prayers—gives us something. Because we share the human condition, we are not spared from ultimate death. Even Jesus had to go through that ultimate human ending.
Issues of life and death and what we are called to as followers of our brother Jesus demand strength, faith, and compassion and if we can take anything from today’s readings, let it be that we ask the right question—not, why death?–because none of us will escape that—but to ask—how do we live with this reality? It would seem that trust is a significant part of it. Life and death literally asks us to place ourselves in Jesus’ loving hands. The question we must ask then is if we believe and trust that we are safe there, not knowing exactly the outcome, but trusting that we will be cared for just the same.
Life is made up of living and dying; physical, emotional and spiritual happenings. The Rochester Franciscans, comprised of sisters and co-journers came together this week to share all that is good in this community, along with discussing what the future of this order will be as sisters age and very few come to join them in the same ways as in the past. It would seem that the face of the order is changing and perhaps the increasing numbers of co-journers signals what the face of the order will be in the future. All of this calls for dying and rising, for great faith, patience and a deep listening to each other and the movement of the Spirit. May her wisdom truly be our own.