· Vatican City ·

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 4 February

Suffering conquered by love

02 February 2024

All the readings reflect upon the common experience of suffering and its potential to push us away or bring us closer to God. The first reading comes from the book of Job which deals directly with innocent suffering as Job laments his condition, “I am filled with restlessness until the dawn; my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” The Gospel recounts the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and how Jesus “cured many who were sick with various diseases.” The responsorial psalm attests to the compassionate and personal response of God in the face of suffering: “He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds. He counts the number of the stars; he calls each by name.” Finally, the second reading reveals Paul’s desire to propose the Gospel as salvation for the suffering of the people: “To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.”

We all suffer in different ways and in different degrees: physical, mental, emotional, and moral. Suffering is a part of life and in some lives, suffering is poignant due to famine and wars. Suffering can imply evil because its presence takes away our participation in the good. Suffering can come in the form of punishment as a consequence of sin and separation from God. Suffering, especially innocent suffering, can obscure the presence of a good God to the point of denying the very existence of God. The mystery and complexity of suffering is vast and has been touched upon by the pastoral letter Salvifici Doloris, but suffice to admit that we and the people around us suffer. What is God’s response?

In the brief encounter between Jesus and Peter’s mother-in-law, we may begin to see the response of God to human suffering. The recounting of the healing is so natural and happened so quickly that we might almost miss the miracle. Between the fever that left her bedridden and the healing that allowed her to begin to serve are three movements: approach, grasp and help: “He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.” These three movements summarise God’s attitude towards suffering. Suffering does not repel but attracts and draws out a compassionate response; Jesus approaches her. He brings presence and companionship. The compassionate response is not abstract, but tangible and corporal; Jesus grasps her hand. The physical presence in suffering does not remain stagnant but leads towards healing; Jesus helped her up.

The three movements, to approach, to grasp, and to help, encapsulate the response required of us from the Son of Man at the end of time. When we encountered those who were hungry thirsty, estranged, naked, ill, or imprisoned, what did we do?

Yes, suffering has the potential to separate us from one another and from God. Also true is that suffering can draw us closer to each other and into communion with God. Jesus shows us that suffering can be healed and conquered by love. If we suffer, let Jesus approach us, grasp our hands and help us. If others suffer, imitate Jesus.

*  Abbot of St. Martin Abbey — Lacey, Washington

By Fr Marion Nguyen, osb *