In most households and families the late afternoon and early evening hours are especially critical. These are the hours when all the hopes, the disappointments, the energy and the fatigue of the day all converge on the home. Parents come home from work and must immediately put all the day’s tensions out of their minds as they greet one another and the family. The children come home from school to a meal, homework, perhaps a bath and bedtime. These evening hours become an important transition period from the distractions of the working day to the focus of the home. And depending on the way in which these hours are treated they can lead either to the disastrous break-up of the family or to its growth.
The readings for today’s Mass lay special emphasis on the evening time. In the first reading the suffering Job looks forward to the evening as a time of rest and peace and quiet. And in the gospel we are given a picture of how, after sunset, the sick are brought to Our Lord to be cured. In the Scriptures the twilight hours are regarded as an important time to be touched by God.
And, of course, the Scriptures don’t only have in mind the final hours of the day. They also refer to a deeper reality. They refer to those twilight hours of our life when suffering or sickness or advancing age force us to set aside the preoccupations of daily life and focus instead on the home which is offered us by our heavenly Father. These are the hours that are especially critical: when we have to face up to the hopes and disappointments of our life and ask ourselves where our energies have been directed.
These twilight hours of our life when we face advanced age, perhaps suffering, illness, or even death, these are the most difficult and the most important hours of our life. We perhaps feel like Job and we cry out with him: Is not man’s life on earth no better than pressed service, his time no better than hired drudgery? And as we search for an answer to suffering, especially when we face suffering ourselves, like Job we fail to find a satisfactory solution. And the truth is that there is no easy answer. Like Job we come to realise that suffering must be part of God’s mysterious plan for us. And we need to trust in God, for there is no other way to face suffering in our lives and in the lives of others.
And yet unlike Job we have seen the work of Christ whose healing ministry in Saint Mark’s Gospel began with his cure of Simon’s mother-in-law. By identifying himself with the sick and the dying, even to dying on the Cross for our sins, Our Lord revealed that suffering is indeed part of God’s mysterious plan. And yet this doesn’t explain suffering, nor does it make suffering easier. But it does reassure us of what Job was only able to glimpse: that if we unite our suffering with Christ’s own suffering then it brings forward and helps to accomplish God’s plan of salvation.
And it is, first and foremost, in the Sacrament of the Sick that this union with Christ is clearest. In the twilight hours of our life when everything seems darkest, Our Lord comes to us, just as he came to Simon’s mother-in-law, to raise us up. As Our Lord raised her up and as he himself was raised up to new life, so he raises our spirits in the forgiveness of our sins, in the strength we receive to face God and, if he so wills, in the restoration of our bodily health. In the Sacrament of the Sick we always receive new life.
Just as the evening hours in the family make or break the home, so do the twilight hours in our life make or break the family of the Church. We must never allow suffering to lead us to resentment or anger. Rather, we must view suffering as a vital transition period between the distractions of daily life and the focusing of our attention and our energies onto our heavenly home. Accepting suffering in the right way builds up God’s family, it builds up the Church in a right way.
And the secret to our right attitude to the mystery of sickness and suffering lies in the way Christ revealed himself in the gospel. Saint Mark tells us that he went off to a lonely place and prayed there. It’s only when we have reflected on our life during the day that we can learn to cope with the difficulties and even the collapse of our earthly life in the evening. We need to set aside some time each day to be with God. And there is no better way to prepare for our own suffering than to pray for others who suffer: and here there is no shortage of material for private prayer.
When we suffer, then, let us call on Christ to touch us in the Sacrament of the Sick and to raise our spirits: so that, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we can serve Christ and wait on him for all eternity.