14th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
Occasionally, there is an idea that I find very bad and I often find it is supported by a short, supposedly pithy statement that infuriates me. And when that happens I feel the need to rant for about eight minutes and that is why I am so happy I have a homily to release that energy. Thank you!
The very bad idea is euthanasia or physician assisted suicide that ends a life before natural death. My opposition to euthanasia, which of course the Church strictly opposes, is based on theological, moral, philosophical and practical grounds. The phrase that upsets me and is used to defend euthanasia is “Death with dignity” and its acceptance is disturbing and underlines a far wider issue.
It has been my responsibility and my honor to stand by many dying people. I have seen people die suddenly and peacefully. I have seen death linger and I have seen it be painful. But never in my life have I seen it not be dignified. Instead I have witnessed courage, endurance and peace.
So what is meant by “death with dignity?” The coiners of the phrase can only mean a death that is free of pain and suffering. And we should alleviate the suffering of the dying as best we can as we should alleviate suffering everywhere in the world. But the idea that suffering is undignified is absurd and offensive to me. Cancer withered my mother and took her life, but I swear to you, it never touched her dignity.
This idea of “death with dignity” gains currency because as a society we hate suffering and find no value in it. Every commercial convinces you that you need to be relieved of anything like a burden. I thought it did not matter whether my underwear had tags until they told me otherwise. But there is value in suffering. Suffering is not good, but good comes from suffering- important goods like courage, character and even peace.
We have a lot invested in the idea of suffering. After all, we worship a God who was crucified. Crucifixion was designed not just to kill the person, but to heap indignity upon them, to heap humiliation upon them. It is why it was done on a hill for all to see, why Jesus was stripped and why he was nailed. Yet, when you look at the cross, do you see indignity or the perfect fulfillment of dignity? It is the ultimate proof that what someone endures is not the definition of the person but who they are as they endure that is the true measure.
St. Paul understands this. Three times he has asked for “a thorn in the flesh” to be removed (probably a physical ailment). While it is always good to ask God for relief from pain, we must also listen to what God is saying. To Paul, God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And then we begin to see it. For after everything else is stripped away, our power, our health, our wealth and our status, nothing is left but out true selves; nothing is left but grace, nothing is left but Christ. Our weakness is how the power of God is made is known.
Suffering is not the opposite of dignity; it is its cornerstone. All the people we admire have known suffering. What is Superman without the threat of kryptonite? Even the Kardashian sisters were forged in suffering. We do not admire people who have everything going for them (I am looking at you Tom Brady). We resent them. And I have never met anyone whose life has been without suffering.
A world without suffering is a world without grace, a world without heroes. My heroes are that dying person who holds to life, we know not why, until they see that last faith or hear that last prayer. My heroes are those who struggle with mental illness which they can never escape, yet they do not let that stop their wide open heart from giving all they have. My heroes are those with intellectual disabilities with whom I worked for years who constantly redefined true and radical love for me. My heroes are those with chronic illness like my friend who is almost always in pain, but few would recognize it because he gives everything for his family, his friends, his church and his community. My hero is Jesus Christ who endured suffering to let us know that we are loved.
It is at the cross that we are invited to share in the suffering of Jesus. It is through that door that Christ greets us and joins us to all others who have known the dignity of suffering. There we have witnessed the graces of faith, hope and love. Faith that makes us stronger and endure more than we could ever imagine, like the dying patient whose stilled lips suddenly start forming the words of the Our Father as I have seen dozens of times. It is hope that allows those burdened by darkness to move forward and to shine a light for others. It is love that proves itself unconquered and unconquerable.
Suffering is inherent to dignity for as St. Paul reminds us, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”