Ever since COVID 19 became a reality in our lives a few months ago, everyone that I have spoken with has shared with me how uneasy this situation has made them feel. For all of us, the uncertainty of illness, fear of suffering and death make us uneasy. This reality of our human condition is expressed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church at number 1500, as it states: “Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, [we] experience powerlessness, limitations, and finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.” It is this fact, that illness can give us a glimpse of death, that I think makes many of us so uneasy in the face of the current situation and the uncertainty that comes with sickness. It seems to me that this uneasiness that we all feel in the face of uncertainty and sickness, or the fear of death, can best be described by the word “dis-ease.”
In the face of this dis-ease, which many of us feel when confronted with suffering and fear of death, the question that many of us ask is “why?” Why does God allow us to suffer dis-ease and why does God not do anything to intervene in the face of these situations?
St. Paul alludes to the answer to this question in this Sunday’s second reading from his Letter to the Romans. Here he writes: “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so death spread to all people because all have sinned.” The sin of Adam and Eve broke the relationship of communion that existed between God and humanity. Because of this, men and women began to experience dis-ease with their existence in the world.
Now in order to explain what I mean by this, I need to take us back to the Garden of Eden. There, in the beginning of the Book of Genesis, we see Adam and Eve living in communion with God. They fear nothing and are at peace with Him before sin entered the world. Some have even raised the question if Adam and Eve would have “died” if they had not sinned. St. Paul seems to suggest in today’s second reading that they would not have died. What does this mean?
I think we need to look to Mary, the Mother of God, to understand what this means. Most theologians do not believe that Adam and Eve were created by God to spend eternity in the Garden of Eden. They, like us, were created for Heaven. At some point, these theologians say, Adam and Eve would have passed from this world to Heaven. However, they point out that it would have been without anxiety and fear. Their passing would have been more of a transition from this world to heaven lived in communion with God and without the fear of death. Because we are born with original sin, we do not have the same kind of communion with God that was originally enjoyed by Adam and Eve. This means that for us, our journey from this world to the next, is not a smooth transition. We experience death, outside of God’s grace, as the termination of life in this world and uncertainty about the world to come. Because of sin, it is not even certain that we will pass directly from this world to the next. We are confronted with the reality that God will honor the free choices of those who choose to exclude themselves from His kingdom. It is this uncertainty that is at the heart of our dis-ease.
If we wish to understand what God had intended for us, we need to look to the example of Mary, the Mother of God. To save all of humanity, God created her without sin, so that through the Immaculate Conception, she might become the Mother of God. He did for her in advance, what He hopes to do for each of us through Baptism. Having been born without original sin, Mary lives her life in communion with God, and is the one who brings Jesus into the world. Because she was born without original sin, and remains free of sin until the end, she passes directly from this world to the Kingdom of Heaven, and is crowned as Queen of Heaven without having to await the judgement of the living and the dead that will come at the end of time. God does for Mary what He had hoped to do for all of us from the beginning. God does for Mary what He will do for us if we accept the salvation that comes to us in Christ His Son.
This is also what St. Paul is telling us when he writes: “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.” As Paul tells us, Jesus came to restore us to communion with God. One of Jesus’s titles is “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” In Christ, God came to be with us, as He was with Adam and Eve, and to stand at our side in our dis-ease. Jesus came to reconcile us to God the Father. The Father and the Son have sent the Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers so that all who accept Him may live in communion with God.
As a parish priest, there are two very powerful occasions when I witness that presence of God being in communion with His people. One of these is at communion during Mass. As people come forward to receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus comes to dwell in them through the power of the Holy Spirit. No matter what burdens, disease and suffering we might be bearing in our hearts when we approach the Lord at communion, Jesus comes to be with us and to strengthen us to go back to live our lives in the world with Him. He is God with us. The second powerful occasion of this presence is each time I celebrate the last rites with a person who is dying. In these sacraments of a Catholic’s last Confession, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick, Christ comes to be at the side of that individual who is about to pass form this world to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the face of that individual’s uncertainty and fear, Jesus comes to her/his bedside and says, as He did to the repentant thief on the cross: “This day you will be with me in paradise.”
This is what I think Jesus is speaking about in today’s Gospel—the fact that when He is at our side, there is nothing that we need to fear. We hear Him saying in today’s Gospel from Matthew: “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both the soul and the body in hell.” If our faith is in Christ, we know from His words that “even the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid, you are of more value than sparrows.” Even in the face of death, we can have faith in Christ’s words that “Everyone who acknowledges me before humans, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” If Christ is with us, we can ultimately be confident that there is nothing that can prevail against us.
Now at this point, I think it is important to offer a little clarification. Jesus says: “Do not be afraid.” He does not say: “Abandon your common sense.” Life is a gift. We need to use our common sense to preserve and protect that gift and the gift that is the life of others. Not being afraid does not mean I throw myself into oncoming traffic or act carelessly and think that God will protect me. I will still feel pain when I put my hand in a fire because God has given me the common sense to feel the pain of the fire and take my hand out of the fire to protect myself. We still need to protect ourselves and others from unnecessary risks. This is why Joseph and Mary fled from Herod after Jesus’ birth and took Him to the safety of Egypt for several years. They were using common sense. In the face of COVID 19, we are to use our common sense to protect the gift of life that has been given to us and our brothers and sisters.
Each one of us, whatever our race, colour, sex or land of origin, have been made in the image and likeness of God. We are made for communion with God. Adam and Eve enjoyed this communion, until they turned their backs on God. Since then, the fate of humanity has been to live apart from God’s grace and to attempt to rely on our own will power and efforts to save ourselves. This leaves all of us feeling dis-ease in the face of illness, pain and situations that we cannot control. In the face of these situations, we experience our powerlessness, limitations and finitude. We come to know that this world is not our true home. This can fill us with dis-ease. It is in these moments that we are invited to turn to the only one who can save us from the uncertainty of death and deliver us, through faith, to communion with the living God here and now. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He is the only true remedy to any dis-ease that we will ever experience. He is our salvation and He offers salvation to all who will take it. It is so simple, we need but accept Him as our savior and all our di-ease will be overcome. He is always true to His Word and His Word is that: “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before humans, I will also acknowledge before my Father in Heaven.”
May we all place our faith in Him and know His salvation.
On this Father’s Day weekend, I would like to wish all of the fathers of the parish, especially my own, a very happy Father’s Day. I will remember all fathers, and the deceased fathers of our parishioners, at all of our Masses this Sunday.
Happy Father’s Day!
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto.
This reflection is based upon the readings from this Sunday’s Mass—Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Jeremiah 20: 10-13; Romans 5: 12-15; and Matthew 10: 26-33.