19 November 2007 Wednesday of the 33rd Week in Ordinary Time
2 Maccabees 7, 1, 20-31 A Mother’s Suffering
We encounter many sufferings in our lifetime. Our hearts get bruised and broken. Our self-esteem gets wounded. We are treated badly or condescendingly. We are oppressed by others who are powerful or who occupy a position of authority. We get low marks in class or our plans fail. But nothing beats the agony and anguish of a mother who lost her son. The reading today from the second book of Maccabees is about such a mother, but with a suffering that is unsurpassable. She witnessed the death of all her seven sons in a day. And more unbearable is that she had to encourage her sons to accept death than disobey the law of God. At present, I have seen the anguish of many parents whose children perished from calamities, accidents and tragedies. Or those who watched their children’s slow death by cancer or physical disease.
These experiences lead many of us to the question of suffering: if God’s love is unconditional and exceptional, why is there suffering in the world? Why are innocent civilians suffering from things they have not done or participated from: the bystander who gets hit in the crossfire, the children who are raped, the babies who suffer terrible pain? One thing is sure this time: I cannot give you a definitive answer. Today’s reflection is an attempt.
There are many answers to the question of suffering: but they are not very satisfying. There are those who would just cut the issue: God’s ways are not our ways; so leave the answer to God and live by faith. There are those who say that God allows evil to continue so we can realize the gravity of sin and the horrors of evil; what is evil is indeed evil, and what is good is really good. As the course of suffering continues, we are supposed to realize that all these sufferings are caused by our sins. In addition, there are those who think the existence of suffering is a good justification at the last Judgment: for those who would be thrown into hell, they cannot complain that their sentence is unjust — they have contributed to the perpetuation of suffering, so they have to be punished. Furthermore, there are those who would say that suffering has a beneficial effect: it would help us be better. How can we be good, if everyone else is good? How can we be patient, if no one provokes our anger and intolerance? To me, these answers lead to more questions.
Perhaps, we are looking at suffering within our immediate concerns: the here and now. When there is a sick call, I used to feel bad and frustrated: what use am I to someone who is dying? My concern is that I will not be able to cure them (if only I could, I would!). I will not be able to alleviate their suffering (a doctor and perhaps, morphine can!). Their families also suffer and there is nothing that I could do. I realize I was approaching the question of suffering from my immediate world, from the here and now.
However, there is something, some effect, some miracle with the families and friends who requested for a hospital or home visit. Their view is not about today, but of eternity. I would bring out the rite for the sick, and we would pray together. I would open the holy water bottle, and I would sprinkle it on the sick and on their families and friends. I would dip my thumb on the oil and anoint the head, feet and hands. I would take out a consecrated host for communion. And then, you get to see they are relieved. They are relieved not because of the elements of oil, water, prayer or bread. We are relieved — including myself and my questioning — because we have prayed together, assured that our dying love one can go, because we will be united in the eternal life. The same thing with the very person who suffers: it would not be frightening to face death because the sick have our love and the next life carries a much greater love. It is like the final embrace of someone who leaves for another country: we can let go, because there is a time when we are to meet again. This is perhaps the reason why the mother in the book of Maccabees urged her son to choose death than defilement, to choose God than sin. This is perhaps the answer to the question of suffering: the God who is all-powerful and all-good chose to suffer too with us.