Widening Our Circle of Compassion

Deacon Clarke E. Cochran, Ph.D.

Jb 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23; Mk 1:29-39

Did you notice that line in the reading from Job: "If in bed I say, 'When shall I arise?' then the night drags on." My mother at age 95 really identifies with Job. Perhaps you do as well, or you have a parent or grandparent who struggles to sleep through the night and spends a couple of hours every night just lying awake, feeling frustrated and anxious. As the saying goes, "Old age isn't for sissies!"

Or perhaps you identify most with Job's complaint that life is "drudgery." When we suffer, time slows to a crawl. Aches and pains are magnified. Illness forces our attention inward, and even the pleasures of company can turn sour.

Experiences like these — whether we live them ourselves or face them with loved ones — can make us bitter. We have to acknowledge this. We see it too often. Or the experience of illness can teach us compassion. We learn to appreciate and sympathize with the sufferings of others when we have experienced illness ourselves or when we care for those who are dear to us.

Something like this is at work in the passage from Mark's gospel, where Peter and Jesus are concerned with the illness of Peter's mother-in-law. The urgency of Mark's language embodies compassion: They "immediately" told Jesus about her fever, and he right away reaches out in healing concern to help her from her sick bed.

Family and close friends are schools of caring and compassion.

Yet, just as with everything learned in the family and in school, our knowledge is not meant to remain there. Empathy for the sick close to us must extend to the ill at a distance. Although "charity begins at home," it is not meant to stay at home.

We witness this dynamic at work in the Gospel, which illustrates how circles of healing widen to all the afflicted.

First, of course, comes the healing of Peter's mother-in-law within the intimate family circle of the home. Next, the "whole town" of Capernaum comes to the door of Peter's home, bringing "all who were ill or possessed by demons." And Jesus heals them all. The circle of compassion has grown to include neighbors and to include different kinds of sickness. Not just fever, but demonic possession.

Our reading concludes with Jesus "preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee." The circle of compassion and healing has widened yet again. Note as well that preaching, or evangelization as we might say, is inseparable from healing. Compassionate care for the sick is a sign that the Reign of God has broken into human history. Jesus' healing is a sign of his messiahship.

We know what happens next, don't we? Next Sunday, Jesus will encounter and heal lepers. From Capernaum, Jesus preaches and heals throughout the whole of Israel, ultimately sending out his disciples to the entire world to continue his mission. The early Christian community's care for each other became a sign of the Kingdom. "See how they love one another" was a comment non-believers made about the early followers of Christ.

It is the essence of healing and compassion not to remain within the inner circle, but to go out in mission to the entire world, because they are built on agape, on self-giving love.

How wide is my circle of compassion? How wide is yours? The needs of our immediate family and friends can be overwhelming and all-absorbing. Job's suffering brings him deep sadness throughout the day and night: "Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall never see happiness again." In the face of this kind of suffering, it is difficult to see beyond the immediate circle. Many in this parish are care-givers of elderly parents, of spouses with life-threatening cancers. Your attention is rightly focused on that immediate need.

Yet, our parish and the Catholic community as a whole, must widen the circle of concern if we are to be faithful to the example of the Lord, whose extended his healing to all in need, and who commanded his followers to do the same. We widen the circle, of course, in our parish prayer lists and in our prayers of the faithful. Yet, our compassion and healing must go wider still.

Despite the great advances in medical science, the need for compassionate healing of the sick remains as pressing as in the time of Jesus. Longer life spans lead to new forms of suffering — Alzheimer's and the other dementias are more common. Mental illness, physical deformity, and AIDS have replaced leprosy and demon-possession of Jesus time as marginalizing illnesses. Lack of health insurance places millions of Americans outside good access to medicine. Billions in the world remain without any medical care and suffer disfigurement, pain, and death from diseases rarely if ever seen in our nation.

What are we to do when the wider circle of need exceeds our ability to respond? Occupied with the care of my elderly parent, how can I respond to the person across town who lacks the resources to treat her chronic diabetes? How can I respond to a medically empty village in Zimbabwe?

Fortunately, God has blessed us with a nation that can afford to ensure that all persons have health insurance and access to care. He has blessed us with a church family that operates hundreds of Catholic hospitals, clinics, dental practices, and long-term care facilities across our nation. God has blessed us with a Church that sends medical mission teams to clinics and hospitals in the most destitute parts of the world.

Widening the circle of compassion does not depend on you or on me alone. We have a community of love and faith that has heeded Jesus' call to "go to the nearby villages" and to all parts of the world. The community of Catholic health care is one way we respond as a Catholic family to needs beyond our immediate circle.

This coming Saturday, February 11th, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, is the 20th World Day of the Sick proclaimed by our Holy Father. The opening comments of Pope Benedict highlight the wider circles of compassion and healing that Jesus demonstrated to his disciples:

"On the occasion of the World Day of the Sick, I wish to renew my spiritual closeness to all sick people who are in places of care or are looked after in their families, expressing to each one of them the solicitude and the affection of the whole Church. In the generous and loving welcoming of every human life, above all of weak and sick life, a Christian expresses an important aspect of his or her Gospel witness, following the example of Christ, who bent down before the material and spiritual sufferings of man in order to heal them."

"He who in suffering and illness prays to the Lord is certain that God's love will never abandon him, and also that the love of the Church, the extension in time of the Lord's saving work, will never fail. Physical healing, an outward expression of the deepest salvation, thus reveals the importance that man — in his entirety of soul and body — has for the Lord."

"To all those who work in the field of health, and to the families who see in their relatives the suffering face of the Lord Jesus, I renew my thanks and that of the Church, because, in their professional expertise and in silence, often without even mentioning the name of Christ, they manifest him in a concrete way."

We sang in our responsorial psalm today, "Praise the Lord who heals the brokenhearted."

In the worldwide circle of healing, each plays a particular part. No one person — no matter how talented — can guarantee the integrity of the entire circle. It is the Lord alone who makes the circle whole by healing the brokenhearted.

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