Reaching For the Presence of God
Our dear departed pastor, the finest priest I ever met, Fr. John LaTondress, used to say to me, "Joe, people have such huge problems. We priests think we have problems. We don't have problems. Our people have the real problems." There are so many aspects to life for which there are no solutions. People have lost a loved one. Who has a solution to make the pain go away? Some members of our parish have chronically ill children. In some families, alcohol, drugs, psychological problems, or infidelity have broken up a marriage and a home. How can the family return to its state before it was devastated? It cannot. There is no solution. Chronic sickness and pain become the focus of a person's mind. How can he or she make believe it is not there? They cannot.
Through all this you folk come to Church to pray to the Lord. I am constantly edified by those of you who have learned to control the anger which your problems have occasioned and come to the Lord for help. And so you come, even though it is so difficult. I know that sometimes you hear us priests speak in flowery language about the wonders and beauty of God. You hear constant encouragement to lead Christian lives, to be people of faith, but, for some of you, all you can focus on is the turmoil, the trauma in your lives. Perhaps you hear priests say that like Jesus you need to go to a quiet place to pray, but you cannot escape the reality which is your own situation in life. Nor can you escape the turmoil within yourselves.
To you folk, and to us all, God has given the Book of Job. The Book of Job is framed around a story of trauma and reward. Job was a prosperous man with the perfect family. Then everything went wrong. One day he received messages that the Sabeans had stolen his oxen and donkies, his servants had been killed, his sheep and their shepherds had been burned in a fire, the Chaldeans had stolen his camels and killed the heardsmen, and, then, the worst news yet, his sons and daughters were all killed when the house they were in collapsed. You know Job’s reaction: “ Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD." And if all this was not enough, even too much, then Job was plagued with sores all through his body. Through most of the Book of Job he sits in ashes suffering all these pains, and considering suffering. At the end of the Book of Job, God rewards his for continuing his faith in Him.
However, it is the forty chapter between the terrors that attack Job and the happy ending that are really important to us today. Job and his so called friends ask the same questions we all ask when besieged with problems. This is particularly evident in today's first reading. "I have been assigned months of misery....My days come to an end without hope....I shall not see happiness again." Job's own wife tells him to curse God and die. He cannot explain why these terrible things have happened to him. But through it all, the turmoil, the doubting, the pain, the loss, Job keeps faith in God. He knows that God is there, somewhere. His faith is rewarded by recognizing the presence of God in the midst of the pain.
Job is an ancient biblical type of Jesus, confronted with the pain and suffering of mankind in today's gospel and with his own personal impending suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross of Calvary. Jesus's total sacrifice of himself for his people and for God's Kingdom results in his feeling completely abandoned. "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me," he prays on the cross beginning Psalm 22. But Jesus keeps faith in God, his Father. God vindicates Jesus and Job. That's the theological term we use. It means God's actions show the truth of Job's and Jesus's faith in the face of their turmoil.
Nothing could take God's life away from Job or Jesus. Not even death could destroy this life. Job believed in this. Jesus gave this to us. Perhaps, St. Paul put it best in the Letter to the Romans:
"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39)
In the face of turmoil, through trauma, in pain for which there is no cure, even when we feel we have been abandoned, we are not alone. Jesus is still there. Nothing, not even our pain can take him away from us.
And Jesus comes upon Simon Peter's mother in law in bed with a terrible fever. She, like all of us, are important to the Lord. He has work for her. He reaches out to her, cures her, and she waits on the disciples. Then Jesus comes upon many people suffering the results of evil in our world, for all pain and suffering and death is due to mankind's original and continual turning away from the Lord of Life. He sees them reaching out to him and he reaches out to them.
Today all of us are told that when we are suffering, in any manner whatsoever, we must reach out to the presence of God in every aspect of life. We believe that he is present for us and with us through it all. We believe that he cries out with us sharing our pain. Now, we must use this special presence of the Lord as a way to come closer to the God who loves us, who was one of us, who died for us and who gave his life, eternal life, to us.
So we ask our God, "When the difficulties of our human condition weigh heavily upon us, dear Lord and Divine Lover, teach us how to pray."