How should we think about the problem of sickness and death? As Byzantine Christians, we pray about this in different ways in the Divine Liturgy. For example, one of our litanies looks to healing when we ask, “that we may be delivered from all affliction, wrath and need…”, and yet another prays “for a Christian, painless, unashamed, peaceful end of our life…” which also acknowledges quite honestly that one day our life will end. With these mixtures of petitions, our tradition offers us the chance to have a balance of hope for healing of our broken bodies, and the acceptance of the reality of our mortality. Still the problems of suffering, sickness and death remain. We may ask ourselves questions about our illnesses like, “Why has this sickness come to me?” Is there a divine meaning to my affliction? If so, what is it?” Or we may ask questions about our attempts to get well such as, “Why does this medicine work for me and not others? Why does this medicine not work for me? Why did God answer my prayers and give me healing? Why did prayers not bring me any healing?” As we will see, our Byzantine Tradition can guide us to understand this problem and its solution, if we meditate upon the theology of the body broken.
When we hear the term “theology of the body”, the writings of St. John Paul II are likely what come to mind. And yet those writings likely do not stir up images about sickness and death, as the bulk of the material written by St. John Paul II (and those who comment on his work) is focused instead upon how we understand gender and sexuality as Christians, in the context of marriage and celibacy. What then is the theology of the body broken? As we will see, it is another look at who we are as people who are both body and souls, and the open admission that often our bodies are often broken in sickness and in death. But it is also a vision to help us understand that illness and death have real questions that need answering, and they have meaning that can be seen on a spiritual level. At the heart, the image of our union with Christ who is our Divine Physician will guide our understanding of the theology of the body broken.
One question may arise in thinking about the theology of the body broken: is the theology of the body broken something new with no link to the writings of St. John Paul II or our Byzantine Christian Theology? We must answer clearly and say “No.” While the general audiences on the theology of the body are quoted by many scholars and popular theologians at particular places in the addresses more than others, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with part of his very last general audience where he concluded his reflections. There St. John Paul II said the following: “The catechesis of the first and second parts repeatedly used the term ‘theology of the body.’ In a certain sense, this is a ‘working’ term. The introduction of the term and the concept of the theology of the body was necessary to establish the theme, ‘The redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage,’ on a wider base. We must immediately note that the term ‘theology of the body’ goes far beyond the content of the reflections that were made. These reflections do not include multiple problems which, with regard to their object, belong to the theology of the body (as, for example, the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message). We must state this clearly.”1 In this last reflection we see very clearly that the project of the theology of the body is called to extend beyond its main focus to the problems of suffering and death, where the body is in many ways broken. This is where the theology of the body broken comes into focus. It helps us to consider the problems and the solution to suffering and death. What does our Tradition have to say about this problem of suffering and death?
First, it is important to understand the Scriptural view of death and sickness. As mentioned, many times we confront sickness and ask ourselves why we have been afflicted. Very often some people claim that being sick is a sign that God does not favor us, perhaps due to some sin in our lives. Many non-Catholic communities particularly claim that this is the case, and they teach their followers that if one simply prays enough (or perhaps donate enough money to a given ministry) they will receive healing. What do the Scriptures say about this? It is clear that at times some people are afflicted due to sin or disbelief. Take the drama of the Passover and we can read of the plagues in Exodus that God worked to convince the Egyptians that the Israelites should worship. Thus, on the one hand those “faith healers” may seem to have a point. But is that the whole of the testimony of the Scriptures?
There are many reasons to avoid attributing personal sin to all sickness and death. First we have Christ in Luke 13:3-5, describing the death of 18 people who died because a tower fell on them. He makes it clear that those people were not more sinful, and that instead we are all called to repentance. Perhaps even more poignantly, Christ heals a man born blind and His words there are even more telling. In John 9:1-3 we read the following: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.’” Thus we can see that there is sickness not linked to one’s personal sin.
The testimony that Christ healed the man born blind could lead some to believe that while sickness and death may not be our fault, it may be that we have a recourse to pray that is a sure fire way for us to get better. After all, if the man born blind’s healing is a sign to help us believe, why would that not be the case with us as well when we are sick? Again, turning to the Scriptures is helpful for us to see more clearly. Here we can consider one of the preeminent apostles. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us a very intimate story about his prayer for healing. He tells us: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) What is key for us to realize is that while healing does come to some, St. Paul makes it clear that he not only asked for healing from his thorn in the flesh, he was also denied of this petition that he made three times. We read that the Lord explains why Paul was not healed. His experience shows that there are times when we do not receive healing at all and that there is a call to rely upon the grace of God who shows his own strength and glory in our weakness. Our last example of a prayer that was not answered comes from Christ our God Himself. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the sickness of rage and murder was surrounding Him as He approached His own death. At that moment we know Christ’s famous prayer was to say “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) We know how the story goes, for it is the story of the cross. Christ’s prayer is very important to not pass over due to our familiarity with it. His prayer had a very specific clause, that if it were possible he made the request that the cup of suffering be taken away. It was not possible, and of course that was because Christ conquered death by his own suffering and death. Our own sickness, suffering and death are at times not possible to be taken from our lives. Taken together, we can see very clearly that we are not personally to blame for our sickness. It can be healed, but when we do not experience this healing we can see that there is an opportunity for the glory of God to shine in our sickness and even our death.
In our spiritual lives and perspectives on the body broken, it is also possible that we could go in the opposite direction of the “faith healers” who assume we will always be healed and simply accept whatever illnesses come our way as part of the divine mission to be just like Jesus who died for us. After all, one could argue, isn’t that what Paul did? More importantly, couldn’t we ask if that was the message of Christ and His passion. Many times we hear the phrase that we should “offer it up” in times of suffering, which is particularly so among our brothers and sisters of the Latin “lung” of the Church. While there is truth to the idea of offering ourselves, we need to also balance this reality with the fact that both Paul and Christ prayed for healing. Perhaps more importantly, we must also consider the fact that in our Church the holy mystery of the anointing of the sick is offered to us. This is not merely a pious custom but again can be linked to the Holy Scriptures. In the Universal Epistle of Saint James we read: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:14-16) Again, we can look to our Byzantine Tradition and see this in the mystery of the anointing. Let us consider one prayer from the service: “Master, Lord our God, physician of souls and bodies, You relieve lingering ailments and heal all manner of disease and infirmity among the people. You desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of truth. You do not will the death of the sinner, but rather that he should repent and live…Thus emboldened by Your faithful promises, good and loving Lord, we pray and beseech You at this hour: Hear our prayer, accept it as incense offered up to You, and visit Your servants; and if they have trespassed in word or deed or thought, by night or by day, remit, forgive and pardon them, O God, overlooking their iniquities and transgressions, witting or unwitting…For there is no one living who does not sin, You alone are sinless; Your righteousness is to everlasting and Your word is truth…Moreover, You did not create us to be lost, but to keep Your commandments and to inherit eternal life; and to You we send up glory, together with Your Father Who is from everlasting, and Your all-holy, good and lifegiving Spirit, now and forevermore. Amen.”2 We see here as in other parts of the liturgical life that we have as Byzantine Christians that Christ is the Physician of souls and bodies. Our theology of the body broken includes a journey of healing, and we seek this healing in the mystery of anointing of the sick which puts us in touch with Christ who is our Divine Physician. Note however that the prayer beseeches God for healing and life, just as did Paul and Christ, and yet the ending of the prayer closes with a request for forgiveness, which can also be seen in the epistle of Saint James. Christ is the physician of bodies but he is also (and perhaps most importantly) the physician of souls. When our prayers are not answered to provide us physical healing, our theology of the body broken must include the broader understanding that even if we die we can have a healing of our souls.
Speaking of dying, there is one last aspect of suffering and death which we have not yet addressed. As mentioned above, we are usually not personally to blame for a given sickness as though it were linked to our own sin. Nevertheless, the scriptural testimony is clear that when sickness leads to death, there is indeed a link between sin and death. If we venture back to Genesis, we are reminded that Adam and Eve were warned to not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest they die. More poignantly, Paul makes it very clear how the sin of Adam is fundamentally linked to all of humanity. In one section of Romans we read: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.“ (Romans 6:23) This notion of ancestral sin (known as original sin in Western Christian theology) is a problem that we cannot overlook. While all of our discussion on sickness and healing is important, the inevitability of death is important to consider. Again, we can reflect on how we as Byzantine Christians celebrate someone’s birthday and realize that there is nothing wrong to pray that God grant someone many years, in health and happiness, even if they are very frail and seemingly on death’s door. But how do we understand when we are in the position of Paul or even Christ and this is not granted to us? What reflections can come to us beyond saying, “Well, this prayer was only answered in the healing of my soul, and not my body?” There is more to see when we consider the theology of the body broken. As we move forward to consider our own weaknesses and our own eventual redemption that comes through union with Christ in our own death, the solution will be seen in that His body which was broken for us is the foundation and basis for our ongoing love, vision and hope for a future which transcends our own bodies’ brokenness and mortality. In our union with Christ, our own brokenness can become Eucharistic and offered for the life of the world.
1. Pope John Paul II, Conclusion to the Series on the Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage, General Audience of 28 November 1984
2. Kezios, Rev. Spencer T. Sacraments and Services: The Sacraments Narthex Press 1995