March / 2008
A letter from Father Russell Smith a member of the Catholic Health Association for the Third Sunday of Easter:
Third Sunday of Easter, Cycle A
On the Third Sunday of Easter, we hear the Gospel of the two men on the road to Emmaus. Their encounter with Jesus takes place on Easter Sunday, and they do not recognize Him. As they walk along, St. Luke recounts their grief and disappointment over the Lord's Passion. When asked what terrible event they are referring to, Cleopas is dumbstruck at Christ's apparent ignorance, since His Crucifixion was the buzz of Jerusalem. At this point, the Evangelist gives us the account of the one story of the Passion and Death of the Lord from two very different perspectives: the human and the divine.
The human understanding has the perspective of the evening news report: "if it bleeds, it leads." There is the vivid memory of the gore and the suffering, ending in the tragic, agonizing death of a hero who had such great promise. There is the attendant horror and shock of the spectators and the grief of losing not only a loved one, but the hoped for Messiah Himself. The misery of Adam's legacy after the Fall goes undiminished and hope is dashed. It is very likely that Cleopas's wife, perhaps Our Lord's aunt, had stood with Our Lady and Mary Magdalene at the very foot of the Cross, and so her view of this macabre spectacle is even more graphic and heartrending. There is only scant reference to the new buzz from those in Cleopas's company who went with Jesus' body to the sepulcher about a report of seeing angels who announced that Christ was alive.
Having listened to these two, Christ upbraids them for their lack of understanding of Sacred Scripture: "How foolish you are!" The message of the prophets is lost on them. Christ must suffer and so enter His glory. "Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets," Jesus teaches them about the witness of Scripture to Him. He then celebrated the Eucharist with them and "vanished from their sight." Our Lord did not deny what they recounted. But their perspective lacked the proper context. They were all too familiar with the "lacrimae rerum," the tragic flaw, consequent fragility and ultimate tragedy of human existence. But even the pagans had sung this dirge in their epic poetry, such as the Iliad and the Æneid.
The actual state of affairs was larger than Cleopas and his companion were appreciating. Christ had in fact risen from the dead. And in so doing, "recapitulated" or reconstituted human nature in its entirety in the pattern of His risen humanity, no longer shackled by the chains of Adam's defeat. Once again, the biblical "younger brother" out-distances his older brother. The body of our human nature is destined to share in the resurrection of the rest of it. And, in Christ's disappearance at the end of this Eucharist, He returns to the Upper Room and His disciples that night instantly, He passes through the solid, locked doors, offers His Peace and shows them His wounds, as we heard in last week's Gospel. In this move, the Fathers and theologians have discerned two important qualities of the resurrected body: agility (the ability to travel at the speed of thought), and subtlety (the ability to pass through solid objects.) (The other qualities they note are "brilliance," as revealed prethumously at the Transfiguration and "impassability," the inability to suffer, as His fresh wounds do not hurt.)
Pope John Paul II wrote that human suffering arises from an encounter with evil. Among these evils are physical illness, moral guilt and death. The natural human response is typified by Job: lament and the question of "why" this is occurring. Sorrow is one of the passions of the human soul and even Christ, "the man of sorrows," gives this graphic expression at the death of Lazarus. The question of "why?," says the Holy Father, is precisely a "theological" question, which is always addressed to God. Suffering people do not immediately line up in a local philosophy department, but search out a rectory. It is a question addressed to Christ on the Cross, in the midst of His own innocent suffering. And His answer in not vague or abstract. It is concrete and specific: "Follow thou me." Communion with Christ, which is grace, allows us to share our pain with Him. (See Apostolic Letter, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, 1984.) The Fathers, such as St. Augustine, taught that "evil" is not really an actual existing reality, but rather an "absence" of what should be present. Tarek Saab puts it this way: "If you bought a whole pizza and it came with only one slice, that pizza would be deficient because it is missing the other seven slices. Where goodness is not perfect, that is what we call evil. In other words, good is something, evil is something missing. Therefore, good and evil can more accurately be stated as good and 'not good.'" (Gut Check: Confronting Love, Work and Manhood in your Twenties. Dallas: Spence. 2008. 57.) Christ fills our deficiency with His divine fullness, which is His Love.
Like Cleopas and his companion, we all too often fixate on the raw reality of suffering and the haunting question of "why." Christ joins us on our road to Emmaus and explains His role in this mystery. Little by little, the sufferer realizes that his "heart is burning within him" as He joins us on the way and opens the Scriptures to us. This culminates with the celebration of Eucharistic communion. The human story, which is tragic, becomes suffused by divine love, which without denying the reality of suffering, enters it from the Cross, takes it to His tomb and fills it with His Risen Life.
All who suffer illness are invited by Christ into this dynamic. Every situation of sickness, from toothache to terminal illness, involves more than the clinical facts. The clinical facts raise the many issues of more profound human aspects of the patient, loved ones and care-givers. There are perhaps ethical issues in more serious cases, but there is always a need to address deeper questions involved in the "why." Processing this "why," especially in light of the mystery of Christ's Passion and Resurrection, brings "healing" even if "cure" is not possible. The two are not identical. Carol Taylor, a nurse-ethicist at Georgetown University Hospital, says that three realities are necessary to create the space for this process. First, there has to be an environment of love. Christ identified Himself with those who suffer hunger, thirst, sickness, imprisonment, etc, in His Eschatological Discourse (Mt 25.) This requires love like Christ's own on the part of all who participate in the drama of suffering.
Second, there has to be a forum in which to articulate the "meaning of life." The ancient Greek playwrights spelled out the three options of answering the meaning of life: there is either a provident God, cruel determined fate, or sheer chance (Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.) The Resurrection is the "grand sky" in which this meaning can be appropriated or savored. Finally, there needs to be a forum for forgiveness: of oneself and/or others. The Lord taught that forgiveness is the prerequisite of worship. The adoration of the awesome love of God is hamstrung without clearing the deck of sin and guilt. With these elements, again, healing can take place, even if cure is not possible. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, California, are keen to impress upon their staff, care-givers and patients three fundamental realities of their sponsorship: every act is a spiritual act, every act must be a perfect act (not to be confused with the elusive "ideal") and their healthcare should contribute to healthier communities, both physically and spiritually.
Medical science can often lead to dramatic successes. Paul Nicholas is an artist and musician who, at the age of twenty-nine enjoyed tremendous professional success, when he was stricken with multiple-sclerosis. For the next six years, he declined to a state of immobility, blindness, and finally he could neither breathe nor swallow. In August, 2007, he was taken to a Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico for treatment with his own Adult Stem Cells—a therapy not available to him in the United States. He says his experience there was that of a "triple resurrection."
First, it took three days to assess his condition, three days after retrieval of his stem cells to treat them for re-introduction into him, and once re-introduced, in three days he got himself out of bed.
"I went to Mexico in a wheelchair," he said, "and I returned to the United States pushing it." He says that he will never sing the Creed at Mass the same way, "and He rose again on the third day."
Paul's clinical results were not guaranteed. His recovery shocked his physician as much as himself. But whether he recovered or not, precisely through this experience, Paul searched his soul and found Christ in a new way. Whether he was cured or not, he found healing in his Communion with the One who became, more personally and profoundly, his "greatest and best friend."
Not all illnesses have a clinically happy ending. In Francis Poulenc's opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, a young postulant named Blanche is interviewed by the aged Prioress. The Prioress asks if Blanche, who is the epitome of timidity and shallowness, is able to assume the burden of the Carmel's contemplative life. "I think I am strong enough to do this," she replies. To which the Prioress responds, "God does not wish to test your strength. He wishes to test your weakness." Within a short time of entering the monastery, the Prioress falls ill and endures a bitter struggle which ends in her death. The younger nuns are abuzz with wonderment that his holy woman should have had such an agonizing and anxious experience of dying. "It seems like she got the wrong death. It fit her like a coat that's too small."
Soon after the election of a new Prioress, the French Revolution erupts and suppresses all forms of religious life. With the exception of Blanche, the Carmelites vow to stay together to the point of martyrdom. Blanche returns to her family and the anonymity of lay clothes. Upon learning of the impending execution of her religious sisters, Blanche joins the crowd gathered to witness their ascent of the guillotine. As the nuns are martyred one by one, they join in the singing of the Salve Regina. As the last Sister is killed, Blanche finds the courage to join them and, the Marian hymn silenced by death, Blanche goes to her death singing the Gloria Patri, and the opera ends.
It dawns on one that weeks before, the Prioress died Blanche's death, in exchange for what would otherwise have been Blanche's cowardice and despair. In the Communion of the Saints (again, professed in the Creed), there is, among other realities, the sharing of spiritual goods out of the Love of Christ which at once suffuses our lives and spills over into the bonds of our human loves. As St Paul says in our suffering, "we make up for what is lacking to the sufferings of Christ." This is true for everyone who suffers and joins that to the Cross in love for Him and others.
We are all on the Road to Emmaus, and like Cleopas, we are at some point stricken with grief and suffering. Like him, we are joined by Jesus who demonstrates the larger horizon of reality beyond our pain. In His Incarnation, Christ descended as far as humanity fell, and He fills the "not good" with the absolute superabundant fullness of His "good." A significant part of this is our body which he will make whole, like His own. "I believe in the resurrection of the body," we say in the Apostles' Creed.
In sickness, we may have an anticipation of His Resurrection through "cure," like Paul Nicholas. Maybe not, like the Prioress. But regardless, joined in the Communion of soul with Christ, we can always taste His healing. - Top