5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Hope in a Hug
Hope in a Hug
Readings: Job 7:1-4,6-7; Psalm 146:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23; Mark 1:29-39
Picture: cc Roy Sinai
Sisters and brothers, I wonder if you’ve ever encountered the following situation. Someone has suffered some kind of setback in life. This someone is carrying a heavy burden. Maybe she has experienced failure in her career. Or in a relationship. Maybe someone else has betrayed her. Or a loved one has died. Whatever it is, she’s very upset. She’s experiencing a whole host of different feelings. Intense feelings. She’s angry at everyone. Perhaps even at herself. She goes to a friend and demands an explanation. Why has all this happened to her? Why?! She is a good person. What has she ever done to deserve all this?
Initially, with every good intention, the friend tries to address her questions. Tries to give her some answers. But, of course, nothing seems to work. In the face of all the hurt feelings, nothing appears to make sense. Finally, the friend decides just to keep quiet and to listen. She allows the other to ventilate. To pour out all the pain that’s inside. Then, at some point, the friend stretches her arms out toward the wounded one. And hugs her. No more words. Just a hug. At first, the other tries to wriggle free. But the friend persists. Gradually, the resistance is overcome. The storm of anger subsides. The person accepts the embrace. Tears are shed. By the one who is doing the comforting, as much as by the one being comforted. Of course, practically speaking, there really has been no change in the situation. Whatever it was that caused the setback–the failure, or death, or betrayal–has not been taken away. And none of the person’s questions has actually been answered in any satisfactory way. But, even so, something significant has happened. Somehow, there’s been a breakthrough. Although still suffering, the person is now no longer trapped in the past. For some mysterious reason, a light is seen at the end of the tunnel. Hope is born anew. And it all begins with flesh connecting with flesh. It all begins with a hug.
In the first reading too, we find someone bearing a heavy burden. We are familiar with Job’s story. He is a righteous man. Someone who faithfully keeps God’s laws. And God has blessed him with great wealth. But then, for some unknown reason, God decides to allow Job to be tested. In a series of disasters, Job loses first his property, and then his family, and finally, even his health. So that, when we meet him in today’s first reading, Job is filled with upset feelings. He complains to God. He speaks of the burdensome nature of human life. We work hard. But the money we earn, we cannot keep forever, even though we might delude ourselves into thinking that we can. Also, our lives often feel so empty and meaningless. Our riches do not satisfy us. Not only do we worry about safeguarding our possessions, but we’re also always looking forward to something else. In the day we wait for the night. And at night we long for the dawning of the sun. Never satisfied. Always restless.
For Job, these are not just casual observations. They are descriptions of his own experience of suffering. And they contain a whole series of difficult questions, which he addresses to God: Why do you let this happen? Why make us work so hard, only to allow us to suffer, and finally to die? Why? What is the meaning of it all?
These are deep questions. Painful and pressing questions. More importantly, these are also our questions. For we are like Job. We too are people of many burdens. Whether we are rich or poor, man or woman, foreigner or local, in different ways, and at various points in our lives, we all experience the tiring struggle, and the anxious restlessness, of everyday life. And there’s a part of us that wants to do what Job does. We wish to demand an explanation from God. In our uniquely Singaporean way, we want to ask why?! Why like that?! What is the meaning of it all?
And it may, at first, distress us that an answer is not to be found in our readings today. At least not the kind of answer that we think we are looking for. Nowhere in our readings does God answer the question why?. And yet, God does not ignore us completely. God does respond in some way. For we, who are Christian, believe that, to all our difficult questions, God really offers only one response. God sends us his Son. In our gospel today, we do not find Jesus telling us the reasons why we have to suffer. But what we do find is a summary of all that Jesus did and taught in the early days of his ministry. Tirelessly, Jesus goes about curing the sick, and casting out devils. But his concern is not so much with the healing and the exorcism, as it is with spreading the news that God is with the people. Such that, even though people beg him, Jesus will not allow himself to stay too long in any one place. Why does he do all this? And what possible connection might Jesus’ actions have to Job’s questions? To our questions? We begin to appreciate the connection only when we recall who Jesus is. Who we believe him to be. He is the Word of God that became flesh. Which means that, in him, God answers all our questions in the flesh. Much like the friend in our story, in Jesus, God responds to our painful queries by reaching out to us and giving us a hug. In the ministry of Jesus, God enters into and shares our pain. In him, flesh finally makes contact with flesh.
But that’s not all. Jesus is not just any other friend. And the hug he offers is no ordinary embrace. Jesus does more than just share our sufferings. He also shows us the way to live through them. While Jesus may not tell us the reason why we have to suffer, he does show us how to bear our sufferings in a way that leads to life. In the gospel, Jesus works as hard as anyone else, if not harder. But he does not experience his work as an empty, meaningless burden. Instead, Jesus is deeply conscious that he is fulfilling a mission given to him by his Father. He occupies himself only with his Father’s business. And, to do this, he prays regularly. He seeks his Father’s advice. He receives guidance and strength from his Source. We’re told that in the morning, long before dawn he went off to a lonely place and prayed there.
To receive God’s hug, then, is to model our lives after Jesus. This is what we find Paul doing in the second reading. Like Job, Paul describes his life in terms of slavery. But what is strikingly different is that Paul claims that this is a burden that he bears freely, for a particular purpose. Though I am not a slave of any man, I have made myself the slave of everyone so as to win as many as I could; and I still do this, for the sake of the gospel, to have a share in its blessings. Like Jesus, Paul does not think of his hard work as a meaningless imposition. Instead he sees himself as having been sent on a mission. A responsibility has been placed into his hands. But Paul was not always this way. There was a time, back when he was still named Saul, that he was a very angry man. It was only after his encounter with the Crucified and Risen Christ, on the road to Damascus, that he was transformed. Having received God’s embrace, he spent the rest of his life embracing others unto life.
And what of us, sisters and brothers? We who call ourselves Christian. We who live among many who suffer. Many who ask the same question that Job asked: Why?! Why do I suffer? We who gather here to celebrate God’s love for us in Christ. Aren’t we called to share this love with those who need it most?
Sisters and brothers, is there perhaps someone in your life who needs a hug today?