Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
Those who know the kind of suffering and pain that Job endured might think that I am being a little overly dramatic to relate the sufferings some have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic to the kind of tribulations and trials experienced by Job. However, as I hear Job state, “I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned me,” I cannot help but think of the way that many people have described the experience of the last few months.
It seems like a kind of general depression has overcome so many of us. People are worried about their jobs and how they will continue to provide for their families as this goes on. Many elderly people are alone and isolated. Even the young people that I speak to talk of how bored and tired they are with this whole situation. There is a kind of malaise that is overtaking everyone, and while we may not actually have suffered the really tragic losses that Job suffered, there is a sense of tiredness and depression that we know all too well as this pandemic drags on.
This can also be the way a person feels when she or he has been sick for a long time. It is certainly the way Job felt. We can also imagine that it is the way that Peter’s mother-in-law felt. We hear that as Jesus went with Peter to visit her as she was laying sick in bed with a fever. Who knows how long she had been that way. The truth is, when we are sick, it does not take too long for us to become sad and depressed. We hear, however, that her encounter with Jesus changed that. As she encounters Him, she is cured and is given a new beginning. The Gospel this Sunday tells us that “Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” In the original Greek, the word that Mark uses is “egeirein,” which means to “raise up.” The implication is that Jesus raised her up, just as He will raise all of us up at the resurrection. By doing so, Jesus made her well, restored her hope and gave her a new type of beginning. The Gospel tells us that as a result of her encounter with Jesus, Peter’s mother-in-law, got up and began to serve.
As I reflect upon this Sunday’s Gospel, it points me to three things that I think all of us need in order to raise our spirits during this ongoing pandemic. These are: gratitude, charity and prayer. I would like to reflect upon how each of these three things are treated in this Sunday’s readings.
I used to wonder why the Gospel made a point of telling us that the first thing that Peter’s mother-in-law did after Jesus “lifted her up” was to begin serving. I thought if she was just in bed sick, maybe she should be given a little time to recover and rest. However, the point that is being made here is that because of her gratitude to Christ for what He had done for her, she overcame herself and began to serve others.
Gratitude can really change our entire perspective on life. When we turn inward and simply take account of what is wrong with our lives, we cannot help feeling down and sorry for ourselves. Yet, no matter how bad things are, there is always a reason for the Christian to have gratitude. Even at the end of life, when things are as bad as they can get, we Christians know that Christ will raise us up and bestow the gift of eternal life upon us. That is a profound reason for gratitude.
I was recently watching a documentary on the Vietnam War. A mother was being interviewed about the death of her son. She said that even though he had been killed in the war, she had to give thanks that God had made him and that she had such a beautiful son in her life; if even for a short time. This powerful example reminded me that all life is a gift. Even when we experience loss, our sadness has to do with the fact that we had enjoyed a gift from God that is no longer with us. Yet, although we and the created world may not be eternal, we as Christians believe that God will restore all things through the victory that Christ has won for us by His life, death and resurrection. As difficult as it can be, gratitude can change everything.
In the midst of this pandemic, gratitude can open each of us to God’s presence in the midst of our struggles. I have known some people to start a gratitude journal when they are struggling in difficult times. By writing down just a few things each day to be grateful for, they have found their perspective on things, even when times were very tough, to be totally changed.
As soon as Peter’s mother-in-law realized what Jesus had done for her, she desired to begin to serve. This Gospel passage also calls us to realize that as a result of what God has done for us, we too are called to serve one another. The desire to serve others, is often a response of gratitude for what God has done for us. However, sometimes it is in pushing ourselves to think about other people that we are released from the self-pity that imprisons us. Many people, when isolated, focus just on their problems and see nothing but darkness ahead. Sometimes, just getting out of ourselves and doing something for others can restore some much needed perspective on our own lives.
In my own life, I have seen how my day can be transformed so completely by just getting outside of my own head. During these days of pandemic lockdown, there are so many ways that we can reach out to other people. We may choose to call someone and check-in with them. Praying with someone on the phone can be a way of helping both parties. Helping another person who is shut-in by leaving groceries at their door or clearing the snow, are small ways of thinking of others. This coming Thursday, February 11 is the World Day of the Sick. All of us can consider ways to reach out with small acts of charity to those who are sick and take ourselves out of our own problems by thinking of others.
One of the things that surprises me about this Sunday’s Gospel is that when many people are looking for Jesus, He has gone away to pray. It strikes me that even Jesus, who was the Son of God, needed to get away and find quiet time to pray. So many people were looking for Jesus and yet He takes the time to pray by Himself.
While for some people the pandemic may be a time of isolation, for others it is a time of many demands, as they work to keep others safe or have added responsibilities placed upon them. The extra work, and lack of time for oneself, can lead to the same kind of weariness that boredom and isolation can bring about. Taking time to pray can be so essential for gaining perspective in this time. For those who work long hours in the health care sector, each day can be that time of “hard service” that Job speaks about. We all need time to care for ourselves. The Bible speaks of this as it emphasizes the importance of the Sabbath and tells us of the reality that even God took time off on the seventh day.
The many constant demands of life can seem like death by a thousand cuts as we respond to one of the thousands of small, but necessary, tasks that people experience each day. In the face of this experience, we all need time to re-charge. Prayer is that time to converse with God and re-charge spiritually. Prayer can give us the time to find reasons to be grateful in the midst of our difficult situations and routines. Prayer can lead us to gratitude. The most beautiful prayer is that found in the Mass, where we offer our daily trials, and are sustained by the gift of Christ’s Body in the Eucharist. This word “eucharist” means gratitude, and it helps us recall all that God has done for us by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, through which He will raise each one of us up.
We see in this Sunday’s Gospel how Peter’s mother-in-law responded to what Christ had done for her. Christ has done much for each of us. When we are weighed down by challenging times and situations, it can be necessary to take a break and find some prayer time, to recount some of the reasons that we have to be grateful. The Gospel shows us that Jesus needed to pray. How can we not have a greater need for prayer in our response to God? Gratitude can lead us out of ourselves so that we gain perspective and reach out to others. Even when we can’t find a reason for gratitude, sometimes those acts of charity that can lead us out of our own thoughts can also give us the perspective to see things in a new light and find new reasons for gratitude.
As we prepare to celebrate the World Day of the Sick on February 11, let us pray for an end to this pandemic and for the needs of those who are sick and the many who care for them. Jesus has come to raise all of us up. May we respond, as did Peter’s mother-in-law, with a gratitude that expresses itself in a care for others – even if that simply means praying for them and ourselves.
This reflection taken from the readings for Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year B: Job 7: 1-4, 6-7; Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23; Mark 1: 29-39.