Sunday, July 02, 2006

Pathos and Sym-pathy

(13th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 2 July, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 5:21-43)

One of the most universal of all human experiences—something all of us encounter in our lives—is that of suffering. Whether it be the physical suffering of a disease or illness, or perhaps mental suffering, or even the spiritual suffering, that pain of the soul we feel at times, none of us goes untouched in this life by suffering.

In particular, as followers of Christ, we are called to have compassion on those who suffer, to help them carry their burdens; or to allow others to help and assist us when we are suffering in our own lives.

The Greek word for suffering is pathos, and it is where we get the word sym-pathy; to sympathize with another person is to enter—in a certain sense—into their pathos, into their suffering. It means that we are drawn “out” of ourselves in order to help others by our prayers, our sacrifices, and our love.

In the Gospel this morning, Christ teaches us the meaning of pathos and sympathy in the most dramatic of ways. We are introduced to a man named Jairus, a synagogue official whose daughter is at the point of death. Who among us could not sympathize with this man? In a moment of desperation, he pleads with Christ to come heal his little girl and Jesus quickly responds to that request.

But along the way a very strange thing happens. Jesus suddenly stops right in His tracks and begins to ask the crowd who it was that touched Him. It is a question that the disciples are somewhat puzzled by; but what could Jairus have been thinking at that moment? He could be thinking only one thing, over and over again:

My daughter. My daughter. Who cares who touched you? We need to get back home to my daughter.

And suddenly Christ turns to the woman in the crowd who has just been healed, and says to her the one thing that would have left Jairus, that synagogue official, speechless. He looks upon that woman with great love and He says to her: Daughter!

Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
—Mark 5:34

It is one of the only times in all four Gospels that Jesus uses that word: daughter. He speaks it now to a woman who is at least His own age. And it is a word that Jairus would never forget for the rest of his life. Because on that day two daughters were healed: this stranger who had only been an interruption and a distraction a moment ago, and his own daughter whom Christ would literally raise from the dead.

Jesus often reaches right into our own suffering—into our own pathos—and opens us up to the suffering taking place all around us. In a world of pathos, it is Christ who teaches us the true meaning of sympathy, what it means to have compassion.

When I was in my first year of seminary studies, one of my classmates came to my room and shared with me the tragic news that had just come over the TV station. It was April 20, 1999, and he told me that there had been a terrible shooting at a high school in Colorado. The name of the school, of course, was Columbine High School.

My classmate asked me if I would like to join some of the other seminarians in the chapel; they were going to pray the rosary for the people involved in the Columbine tragedy. At the time I was very busy, and so I thanked him for the invitation and told him I would say a prayer on my own. It was sad news, but not something that really effected me; it seemed like just another tragic event, another tragic story for the evening news.

It wasn’t until several days later, as I was reading a newspaper article about the high school students who were killed, that I began to see something more than just another tragic headline.

That article included pictures of all the students who had died that day, and a small biography describing each one. One of them, Rachel Scott, for whatever reason, seemed to stand out among all the others. There were just a few small sentences about her, some basic information: that she was a devout Christian who was a part of a prayer group in town, that she loved her red sports car, that she enjoyed being in the school play.

Suddenly, as I read that article, I felt the most profound, almost overwhelming, sense of sorrow. I began to realize that this was more than just another story or news event. This was a seventeen-year-old girl whose life had been taken away from her. This was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s whole life. It caught me completely by surprise, and I began to pray daily for her family, that God would help them through this terrible loss.

About one year later, I was in Barnes & Noble and I came across a book with a young girl on the cover who seemed to look familiar. The book was called “Rachel’s Tears,” and it was about Rachel Scott from Columbine High School. Her parents had written that book in the months following her death.

I wondered how many other people, like me, had felt called to pray for Rachel Scott’s parents as they struggled through that loss; how many people had been offering prayers and sacrifices for them as they wrote that book about their daughter and her tremendous faith and love for God; the way she had changed the world she lived in and continued to change it even after her death.

God calls us to recognize the suffering that we see so often in the world around us. But more importantly, He allows us to do something about it. Who are the people we need to sympathize with in our lives and in our world today? Where can our prayers, our sacrifices, and our love make a difference for those who need it most at this time?

Might we freely offer to God all that we can to support those who are suffering, and take great consolation knowing that countless people—perhaps even at this moment—are already sympathizing with us and supporting us in the crosses that we carry each day.