Comforting the afflicted

hqdefaultVery many tears are written about in the Bible. I will confine myself to some quotations from the Psalms: ‘my eye is wasted from grief’ (31:10); ‘ every night I flood my bed with tears’ (6:7); ‘I weep tears of sadness’ (119:28); and ‘put thou my tears in thy bottle! Are they not in thy book?’ (56:8). This last quotation offers us two evocative images which tell us that no tear is lost. God keeps them all, even the most secret, as a precious treasure. Jesus himself did not hesitate to weep and he did this in various circumstances. In front of the tomb of his friend Lazarus ‘Jesus wept’ (Jn 11:33-35). He wept for Jerusalem: ‘And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it’ (Lk 19:41). In the Letter to the Hebrews we read as follows: ‘In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death’ (Heb 5:7). Jesus did not face up to death as an impeturbable hero. Instead, he abandoned himself to the weakness of tears! On a number of occasions the Gospel describes Jesus as being upset, and even indignant, when faced with illness and the pain of people. In Jesus’s eyes, to lament and to weep were not in the least things that were inappropriate to, or incompatible with, faith. Pain and weeping were more than justified, from a Christian point of view as well. It was for this reason that the Messiah came ‘to comfort the afflicted’ (Isaiah 61:2) and to threaten the pleasure-seeking and the happy-go-lucky: ‘Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger’ (Lk 6:25).

Here Jesus was the first to set an example. He fell into an abyss of suffering which no man has ever experienced. He experienced the absence of consolation, as the Psalmist had predicted: ‘I looked for pity but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none’ (Psalm 69:20). Indeed, in the Garden of Olives, before facing up to his passion and death, Jesus sought the company and the comfort of his three favourite disciples, and he tried on three occasions to wake them up. However, overcome with tiredness, they fell asleep. Left on his own, Jesus ‘began to be greatly distressed and troubled’ (Mk 14:33); ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground’ (Lk 22:44); ‘he…knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine be done”. And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him’ (Lk 22:43). So it is that the determining presence of an angel who comforted and consoled Jesus enables us to understand how urgent and necessary it is to console those who today experience loneliness and affliction and pray for the silent presence of a Cyrene, a Veronica, an angel, who will dry their tears, sweeten the burden of their cross, and raise them up and comfort them when they cannot, on their own, continue to face up to their agonising situations of pain. No less providential for Jesus was the presence of his mother at the foot of the cross: this made sweeter and less sad his agony and his death. It will thus also be comforting for us to pray to Mary when we are at the side of those who suffer and die: ‘To you we sigh, O Mary, crying and weeping in this valley of tears’.

     To comfort has many synonyms, for example sharing in the pain of a person who is afflicted because they have lost a loved one; lifting up someone oppressed by remorse or incomprehension; encouraging those who are depressed; alleviating pain; drying tears; but also cheering up disheartened spirits with affectionate, sincere and measured words, and nearness and sharing. Afflicted people are easily recognisable when, for example, we see someone with a sorrowful, depressed, downcast, upset, dispirited or desperate face because of a sudden family misfortune, an incurable illness, or family problems that often cannot be solved. As an effective medical product, believers have received the anointing of the sick and for this reason they have been made capable of ‘binding up broken hearts’, imparting courage to the discouraged, and suggesting valid and Christian reasons for living, hoping and going on fighting to those who are afflicted and oppressed by suffering of all kinds. Everybody should be helped to react, to have confidence in themselves; they should be offered time and support so that they do not resign themselves to the worst but, instead, abandon themselves to the tenderness of God ‘like a child in the arms of its mother’. Therefore, to give comfort to those who are alone, to families undergoing tribulation, to young people without a future, and to sick people who have no hope of recovering, is a precious work of mercy.

Human afflictions are as many in number as people, and their consequences are limitless. For this reason we have been given the Consoling Spirit – he will suggest to us the words that are suitable to illumine minds that are lost and hearts that are disconsolate, above all when there are tears for a loved one who has died prematurely. To give meaning to these painful events, in his First Letter to the Christians of Thessalonica Paul proclaimed Christian hope in the face of death and comforted a community that had been afflicted by the loss of a number of its members: ‘For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Th 4:13-17). And he exhorted them to find consolation and comfort in the Word of God: ‘Therefore comfort one another with these words’ (1 Th 4:18). It is also significant that in the Bible the most moving image to proclaim the salvation that will be achieved in heaven is that of God drying the tears of the eyes of His suffering and afflicted human creatures: ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Ap 7:17); ‘There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain’ (Ap 21:4). Whatever the case, even without waiting for future life, as believers who have received baptised and confirmation and are full of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we have already been made capable of, and fit for, comforting. Rich with so much grace, we are thus invited to praise and thank the Lord: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God’ (2 Cor 1:3-4). God, therefore, in loving us comforts us, and given that we are loved and comforted by Him, He makes us, as well, capable of comforting those who are afflicted.

But where, when and how should we provide comfort? If the world is a valley of tears, a hospital, even if its primary purpose is to heal illnesses and send back people into the lists of life, is, in fact, also a place where fear and loneliness are often at home; where, at times, the sad reality of death is to be encountered; and where, therefore, the presence of a Veronica who dries faces, or of a Cyrene who helps people to carry their crosses, becomes as urgently needed and as valuable as it has ever been. Fortunately, religious assistance is guaranteed in hospitals and there are associations of volunteers for the sick people who have been admitted to them. There is an urgent need for a similar presence in private homes where a multitude of disabled people, elderly people and sick people of all kinds are for the most part abandoned because their families, with some praiseworthy exceptions, are not able to assure them suitable and caring assistance. Christian communities in parishes are thus offered a vast field of action that only the creativity of charity can in part respond to. Thus to be near to those who weep, to those who hope, and to those who struggle against all hope, is a gift as valuable as it has ever been and one that is at times more valuable than medical products themselves. St. Francis, we are told by the chronicles, ‘bent down with wonderful tenderness and compassion in front of anybody who was afflicted by some kind of physical suffering; he felt his heart melt  in the presence of the poor and the sick, and when he could not offer help he offered his affection, that is to say motherly tenderness’.  It will thus be a great joy for us to be able to give ‘the oil of consolation and wine of hope’ to those who weep and are weighed down by sadness and pain, turning with trusting prayer to the source: ‘Holy Spirit, comfort our sadness. Our hearts are full of afflictions and we are always downhearted. Make us worthy, our Lord, of your consolation, which is more tenacious than affliction (Saccus of Nenive). More evocative and touching is the sequence of Pentecost: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, send to us from heaven a ray of your light. Perfect consoler, sweet host of the soul, most sweet relief. In hard work, rest; in heat, shelter; in weeping, comfort’.

Father Rosario Messina