Illness destroys something deeply necessary for our welfare. Prolonged illness or disability incapacitates us, as it also tragically severs us from the community of persons who go about daily life in relative health and agility.
But the deeper role of illness and disability is one of purification. As persons who possess bodies and souls, the link between our physical health and spiritual well-being is an undeniable reality. Whether ails us on the level of the body we will experience as a deep suffering on the level of the soul. And likewise, if we are spiritually unwell, mired in the hold of vice, then our bodies will manifest malaise of a physical form. In a culture that segments physiological ailments, as if the person where a mechanic entity whose various components parts can be replaced and rebooted, the danger is great that we diagnose our physical suffering as disjointed from the whole of our human life—our existence as both corporeal and spiritual beings.
And so it is that illness, particularly prolonged illness of any kind, teaches us something deeper about ourselves. The suffering body elicits not simply empathy and compassion, but also calls us to marvel at the will to live itself, at the desire for a happiness that transcends our earthly state of fallenness and weakness, at the reason why we exist at all in this life, and live often bearing its hardships.
It is not by chance that each time Christ heals someone, he focuses the attention of the miracle on the faith of the recipient. There is a constant linking of the health of the body with the health of the soul. Illness reveals what it is that operates deeper healing: faith becomes the portal by which Christ operates wonders even in the body, restoring order, health, hope, to the whole person. In each instance, faith is the knowledge that Christ can and will heal.
The crowds surround Jesus as four men bring him a paralytic
“Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
–Matthew 2. 3-5
To the angered reaction of the Scribes who accuse Him of blasphemy for forgiving sins, Christ reveals that the healing of the body is related to the healing of the soul: the forgiveness of this man’s sins precedes the miracle which will heal his physical paralysis. He commands the man to rise, and heals his body as well, by the merits of the faith that had brought him there.
The Daughter of Jairus is raised from the dead because of the faith of her father. On meeting the crowd lamenting her death, Christ tells Jairus “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” (Mt. 5.36) He visits the girl, and tells her to rise as he brings her back to life to the dismay of everyone who had grieved her death.
The woman, who for 12 years suffered from hemorrhages, acts in faith as she reaches for Christ’s cloak in the throng that surrounded him
She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him, turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who has touched my clothes?” But his disciples said to him, “You see how the crowd is pressing upon you, and yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. The woman, realizing what had happened to her, approached in fear and trembling. She fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”
The Centurion who asks Christ to raise his servant, professes to be unworthy of Christ’s visit into his home
“Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion said in reply: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.”
He believes that Christ can heal by his word. And so Christ does, and proclaims the strength of that man’s faith: Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Mt. 8.10)
And there is the blind man who was begging, and on hearing Christ was passing by he threw away his cloak, and asked for pity. Christ calls to him: “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.” Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way. (Mt. 10.52-53)
In the countless instances where we marvel at the healing Christ works among the people, we find that body and soul are both restored. Human freedom is exercised most fully in faith that emanates from dependence, that discovers that the source of health, and of truest well-being is beyond us. This is faith that manifests knowledge of God’s power and infinite goodness. However we might wish to be well, and whatever we may do achieve renewed health, something deeper is in play each time we come to experience true suffering. The soul seeks its physician, in just as sure a way as the body requires its doctor.
The question is a profound one: do we believe Christ heals body and soul? Our body and our soul?
To arrive at an answer, we might envision ourselves in the bodies of those whom Christ cured, and imitate them. A man who for a lifetime lived in the darkness of blindness now has a first experience of seeing the world. It begins with beholding Christ himself. A woman who was confined to her home and weakened by blood loss now has the capacity to live her daily life in relative mobility and freedom. This begins by touching Christ’s cloak. A man lame from birth now has the freedom to move about at will. His first step is towards Christ. The dead — they return to life in their bodies. They see and touch Christ’s body first.
Each of these instances is a dramatic revelation, not just of the workings of God in restoring physical life and health, but of the value God places on human life lived fully — of life lived directed towards Him — life lived for heaven. We ought to look at the miracles recounted in the Gospels as both actual workings of corporeal healing, and as marvelous encounters with the work and power of grace. Moreover, we should see them as prequels of the eternal beatitude we are made to attain, as preludes of the resurrected life.
The Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Holy Anointing, effect this re-vision in our lives still. Not all people who are anointed will know dramatic bodily cures, but they certainly receive grace to bear the cross of suffering, and to perceive its deeper meaning in union with Christ. The words of the sacrament afford us this vision of hope, as we pray that we may “bear infirmity with Christ who shared our own”. As conduits of grace, the sacraments are efficacious both for the health of the body and that of the soul. They bring us into communion with the Lord, who is alive, “who did not make death, and desires not the demise of the living.” (Cf. Wis. 1.13)
Christ knew the hardship of the broken body, and the Passion of the Lord is the model for human suffering. Entering into it enables us to understand what it means that Christ took on our flesh and knew its weakness, its need. He who is like us in all things except sin, knew the fragility of the human body, knew hunger, and cold, and the agony of crucifixion. “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” (Heb. 5:8)
The obedience of the Cross reveals itself to us throughout all of Christ’s earthy life. As a prequel to the sacrifice of Calvary, the miracles and words of Christ always manifest obedience to the Father. And the marvels of this obedience are in the details of his deeds.
Hidden in the accounts of the final hours of Christ’s earthly life there is one action that deeply demonstrates this to us. It is Christ’s last testament, and it is repeated at each Eucharistic Sacrifice
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
The fact that Christ broke the bread before he made it His body is deeply significant if we see this small gesture in light of the Cross. He did not need to break a loaf apart to share it with the Apostles. After all, the same Christ who multiplied five thousand loaves to feed the multitude could well have offered basketfuls of bread to the Twelve at the Last Supper.
So why did He break the bread?
Because the restoration of a broken, fallen humanity would be worked out in His flesh, in the spectacle of His broken Body.
There was a greater miracle in play that night before He died than the multiplication of the loaves: man was to receive not just bread, but Christ himself. If He broke bread before giving it to them, to show then them the total offering He was about to make, then insofar as we are to become more like Christ, we must also unite our brokenness to Him as well.
We also lie prostrate on the marketplaces calling forth His name. The cities of our world are full of the lame and the blind, the dead and the bleeding. He came not once to heal them alone, but continues to pass by — His broken body, now the spectacle of resurrected glory — still works wonders in our midst. And if the marvels of healing He had worked among the unworthy tell us anything of His mercy, now we, the unworthy, receive more than the restoration of our broken flesh — for we receive the salvation of our souls.
How then are we to understand healing in our own lives? It would do us well to see ourselves as having come one step closer to the resurrection of the flesh. The marvels of healing of body and soul that happen everywhere around us sustain a living hope. For pain is not the end of the story, nor is illness, or death, or despair.
After the resurrection, St. Peter and St. John walked the streets of Jerusalem preaching in the name of Christ. Even there, a crippled man stood by the Beautiful Gate among the crowds begging for his daily bread
Peter said, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, [rise and] walk.”Then Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong. He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.
Peter raised in the their midst the Savior’s power, and with his consecrated hands, brought healing. The lame walked again, the dead arose.
As we arrive at the beautiful gate still living the throes of suffering, we behold the Host, Christ’s Body, our daily bread, raised at the altar above the spectacle of our broken bodies, and hear ourselves called to offer there our share in His suffering
“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
A remembrance in flesh and blood. Our broken flesh. Our blood.
Bold faith, and fleshly hope. Mortality and divinity in communion. Body and soul, restored. In His name, marvels.
We rise and walk.
…Would that Christ still find faith so strong among us.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com