|Sick pilgrims during Mass of Anointing in Underground Basilica|
"Imagine for a moment that your fairy godmother were to appear to you and to say: “I grant you one wish. I shall change for you one aspect of your personality, or take from you one painful memory, or remove one element of your story that has caused you difficulty to make your life easier.” I guess that most of us could think of something. Indeed, if, like me, you’ve got a few miles on the clock, you might be spoilt for choice.
But the good news is that we don’t live in a world of fairy godmothers, even though we inhabit a culture which thinks that selective memory and air-brushing out uncomfortable details and projecting a glossy image is the way to go: “Smile and be happy!” or maybe just “Smile and wave!”
We live in the gospel world of St. Paul, which has no room for pretence or denial. We are as we are. Our past and our story is what it is. And with St. Paul we have to make the same journey towards acceptance of the unwanted and the unsought for, whatever that is in each of our lives. “About this thing,” says St. Paul, “I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me, but he has said, ‘My grace is enough for you; my power is at its best in weakness.’” (You notice that he doesn’t say what ‘this thing’ is – so we might guess that it’s something pretty embarrassing!)
I believe we cannot live in true freedom of heart until we have heard that voice and made that discovery – as Paul tells us elsewhere in his letters to the Corinthians – that “We hold this treasure in earthenware vessels’” (2 Cor 4.7) and that, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1Cor 15.10).
By the grace of God I am what I am. God made me and God made my fragility, too. When I am weak, then I am strong; because then I meet the invitation both to trust in God’s grace and to trust in Christ’s presence in my weakness, too; Christ crying out with me and in me: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.” (Lk 22.42) And God’s will is that nothing in us and in our story is to be rejected as unworthy, or as no good, or as irredeemable, or as a dead end. Our God is always the God of new beginnings.
It’s actually quite easy in our culture to preach the virtue of self-acceptance (as long as it’s a complacent, lazy and uncritical self-acceptance). And it’s always a temptation for Christian preachers in their health and strength to offer cheap explanations of suffering to those among us who live with daily pain. But suffering defies explanation and, if it has a meaning, only the sufferer can discover that.
What we do in this Sacrament of Anointing is not to explain or domesticate or sacralise suffering but something different and something much more creative and worthwhile. We, in our fragility, as Church, stand with you in your fragility. We honour your vulnerability as the vulnerability of Christ, who prays to his heavenly Father both, “Take this cup away from me!” and “Your will be done!”
Your will be done, not through fairy-godmothers or denial or wish-fulfilment but through the power of prayer and the power of Christ’s weakness working in us, and through the unlooked for and unwanted and unexpected Gospel: “My grace is enough for you; my power is at its best in weakness.”