FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR B

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 146: 12, 3-4, 5-6
1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23
Mark 1:29-39

February 5, 2006

“I am allotted months of emptiness and nights of misery are apportioned to me” (Jb 7:3), says Job: the utterance of a man for whom life has lost all meaning. Job was a prosperous citizen, a man content with himself: comfortable in his religion, secure in his possessions, happy with his family. In a single day, he lost everything (Jb 1:14-16). A tornado struck the house where all his children were gathered for a dinner party, and all perished (Jb 1:18-19). Later he was stricken with a terrible illness; he was covered with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Jb 2:7). His wife (hardly sympathetic and encouraging) tells him to curse God, and die (Jb 2:9). His friends come for visits, but their conversation brings no comfort and their company no solace.

In only six verses, today’s first reading reveals the bleakness and intensity of Job’s suffering. His torment is more interior than exterior: restlessness, sleepless nights, and the total eclipse of hope. God is conspicuously absent from the text. God is not even mentioned. Listening to the reading, I was moved by the images of despondency that, one after the other, bare for us the depths of Job’s pain. “Months of emptiness and nights of misery” (Jb 7:3). “The night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn” (Jb 7:4). Job has the fearful experience of seeing his life rush past him into an impenetrable obscurity. “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope” (Jb 7:6). The last line of the reading leaves one with the impression of an indefinable and tragic emptiness. “My eye will never again see good” (Jb 7:7) or, in the lectionary translation, “I shall not see happiness again.”


Job finds an extraordinarily poignant echo in a poem by W. H. Auden.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

“For nothing now can ever come to any good.” Auden is quoting Job. How do we leap from this into the responsorial psalm, “Praise the Lord, who heals the broken-hearted” (Ps 147:3). I’m not even sure that a leap is appropriate. The reality of human suffering, of the gnawing sense of hopelessness cannot, and should not, be treated dismissively. The pain of the human heart deserves the respect that only a speechless and attentive presence can offer. In any case, the leap into the responsorial psalm, however long it is respectfully delayed, cannot be attempted alone. We respond together to the glimmers of light that it holds out. God, conspicuously absent from the text of Job, comes out of hiding in the psalm to “gather the outcasts of Israel, to heal the brokenhearted, and bind up their wounds, to lift up the downtrodden” (Ps 147:2-3, 6).

As a rule, the second reading is not related to the other texts of the Sunday liturgy. Today, however, Saint Paul says something that brings him close to Job, and to us. “To the weak, I became weak, that I might win the weak” (1 Cor 9:22). Here, Paul reflects his Lord and Master, the Suffering Servant. Before Paul, Christ himself, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3), became as weak to the weak, that he might win the weak. (Isaiah’s portrait of the suffering Servant will, in fact, be our first reading in Saturday’s Mass for the World Day of the Sick.) The weak Christ — like the weak Job, and the weak Paul — speaks, I think, to the weakness in all of us, drawing us to himself humbly and gently. Virtue that causes the righteous to seem distant, and holiness unattainable, is no virtue at all.

Job and Paul, in their weakness, conduct us to the gospel of the compassionate Christ. In the gospel, the God of the responsorial psalm has a human face, human hands, a human heart, and a healing, human touch. Look at the Christ of the gospel? What do we see him doing? He stretches forth his hand (Mk 1:31) to raise up, to set free, to heal. What Jesus does in the gospel for the mother-in-law of Peter (Mk 1:30), and for the whole city gathered together about the door (Mk 1:33), he wants to do for us.

Come to him, present in the mysteries of the Bread and of the Cup. He will take you by the hand and lift you up (Mk 1:31). If, scorched by the heat of the day, you long for the shadow (Jb 7:2), he will “hide you in the shelter of his wings” (Ps 17:8). If months of emptiness have been your lot (Jb 7:3), he comes to “crown the year with bounty” (Ps 65:11). If nights of misery have been your portion (Jb 7:3), he rises before you as the dawn of mercy (cf. Lk 1:78-79).

If you say, “When shall I arise” (Jb 7:4), he stretches forth his hand to raise you up (cf. Mk 1:31). If you say, “the night is long” (Jb 7:4), he says, “You will not fear the terror of the night” (Ps 91:5). If the night is “full of tossing till the dawn” (Jb 7:4), he says, “Come to me . . . And you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28 29). If the days of your life are rushing past, “swifter than a weaver’s shuttle” (Jb 7:6), leaving things unresolved, questions unanswered, and your heart without hope, he comes to calm and quiet your soul, “like a child quieted at its mother’s breast” (Ps 131:2).

If you fear that never again your eye will see good (Jb 7:7), draw near today to the Holy Table saying with Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . and in my flesh I shall see my God . . . . This, my hope, is laid up in my heart” (Jb 19:25-27, Vulg).