Illness functions as a reminder that our lives will not last forever. Even the smallest sickness, such as the common cold, can lead us to exclaim along with Job, “Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again” (Jb 7:7).
We are creatures with limits, whose lives will not last forever. Our time will come to an end.
This insight is forgotten by the therapeutic vision of Christianity that too often captures the imagination of Americans. We imagine that religion is about being a decent person. It’s about getting through life’s difficulties with a bit of help from God.
We forget that Christ came to rescue us from that single thing that no man or woman can save themselves from: death. We are mortal.
The reign of God that Jesus Christ has come to announce is the promise that death will be no more. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with fever. In this sickness, her death is at hand. And yet our Lord approaches her, touches her and heals her. For at least a bit, she is saved from the power of death.
Jesus’ healings in the Gospel of Mark are not mere displays of wonder. They are a proclamation that death itself is about to meet its match in the Messiah. There is a war at hand. And the Holy One of God has come to win it.
This explains the urgency that you can’t help but encounter in Mark’s Gospel. After days of healing, Jesus goes to rest and pray for a bit. Everyone is looking for Jesus, wanting to be healed.
Our Lord immediately departs, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come” (Mk 1:38).
Our Lord has come to announce the arrival of the kingdom of God. He has come to defeat death itself. He has come to save us from that which cuts us off from relationship, from life itself.
And he has accomplished this salvation in his death and resurrection.
That’s why St. Paul has something of this same urgency in his own preaching: “If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” (1 Cor 9:16)
Woe to St. Paul if he does not preach the good news that death has been conquered. Woe to St. Paul if he turns the Gospel into a series of philosophical principles alone. Woe to St. Paul if he waters down Christ’s teaching for his own comfort.
And thus, woe to us.
Christ has not entered the world to proclaim a series of ethical principles that were previously available to reason. Instead, he has come to save humanity from death.
In the person of Jesus Christ, we discover that death has been conquered not simply through his healings, which were temporary. Death has been conquered because love descended into the darkest of places. And darkness could not win. Love won.
This is the Gospel that we are to proclaim to the world. We must become, like St. Paul, weak for the sake of the weak. We must manifest to the world the power of a love that enters into the darkest places of the human condition.
It’s not enough to be decent people with nice families in good towns with pleasant homes.
Instead, we must proclaim the power of a Messiah who enters into the unpleasantness of the human condition.
And transforms it in love.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.