Desperate times call for desperate measures. Sometimes desperate times can bring out hidden talents, or lead to ingenious inventions or call for unconventional approaches. The rescue operation in the cave in Thailand a couple of months ago is a perfect example of all of those. But sometimes desperate measures deployed to solve a problem, rather than making it better, make it worse and even more desperate. Sometimes desperate times are too overwhelming, and obstacles insurmountable; the only solution then seems to be quiet and hopeless resignation. Desperate times can be of various magnitudes; from global – like climate change – down to very personal or individual situations. Usually we ourselves are much more concerned with the latter, for obvious reasons. I think that becomes particularly evident with health issues. We are exceptionally lucky with healthcare in Scotland, one of the very few countries in the world to offer such a wide scope of medical services for free at the point of access. There are many places in the world where even the most basic medical care is either not easily available or prohibitively expensive. So much so, that the only alternative option people have is so-called ‘alternative medicine’.
Social care, funded and provided by the state in a variety of ways, is another important aspect we take for granted in our country. The whole system of benefits provides a safety net for those in need. Sadly, this kind of arrangement isn’t available across the globe; we are exceptionally fortunate to have it. But those two great assets – medical and social care – are relatively new state provisions. Before they were set up, the onset of ill-health meant serious trouble, and the prospect of death perpetually overshadowed people’s lives. Today’s gospel is a story of desperate times for a disabled man, whose quality of life relied completely on his family or friends. Those of us who have cared for ailing relatives or friends know only too well how physically exhausting and mentally draining care-giving can be, despite one’s best intentions, willingness and love. The disabled man in today’s gospel is brought to Jesus in a desperate attempt to find healing. Why do I call it ‘desperate’? Because his carers approach a Jewish itinerant preacher that they believe to be a miracle-worker. “They” were Gentiles: and there was no love lost between them and the Jews – each side despised the other. Jesus responded to their plea in an unusual manner. Jesus put his finger into the man’s ears, touched his tongue with his spittle, and uttered an Aramaic word. It’s unusual because, when asked by Jews for healing, Jesus often said just a few words and the deed was done. Here, Jesus seems to be performing some kind of ritual, strange as that may sound.
In fact, this sort of action accompanied by words was left to the Church by Jesus in the form of Sacraments. These are powerful and effective signs of God’s care for each one of us. The Sacraments are not magic; for them to be effective and beneficial, they require faith from those who ask for them to be administered. In today’s gospel, the people who brought the disabled man to Jesus believed that He could cure him. Jesus responded to their belief with tangible signs. Not because He couldn’t have healed the man otherwise. It’s the same story with us. We perceive the world around us via our senses. Yes, God can administer His graces without any tangible expression. But He’s chosen to do so in a way that appeals to our senses, hence the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Holy Communion (or the Eucharist), Marriage, Priesthood and the Sacrament of the Sick.
The last one has acquired a fearsome reputation as ‘the final Sacrament’ or ‘the last rites’, supposedly administered only to those who are about to die. Which is a complete nonsense. In fact, it’s the Sacrament of Healing, ‘administered to any member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger by reason of illness or old age’ (Canon Law). Its purpose is to bring healing from illness, and/or to provide spiritual strengthening, support and consolation in battling an illness. I’ve seen so many people feeling strengthened and getting better after having received the Sacrament of the Sick. The instances of healing are incomparably greater than of those who have died a short time later. Even with the latter, their relatives reported that the passing over had been very peaceful.
As we all get older – that’s the inevitability of life – and more prone to taking ill, we shouldn’t be afraid to request the Sacrament of the Sick; not instead of, but alongside, medical treatment. In today’s gospel Jesus utters only one word that translates as ‘be opened’ – it’s a great call to make it yours. Be opened to God’s grace coming through the sacrament of the sick.