The Stomach Bug and The Incarnation
Two days before Christmas I was on my knees at four o’clock in the morning, crying out to our Lord. I wasn’t in the chapel. I was in the bathroom. The hurls were rather violent and I felt better when they were over, but I wondered what this sudden occurrence meant for the rest of my weekend, seeing that I was looking forward to lunch with a friend that afternoon, a dinner party later that evening, and all the Christmas masses and gatherings with family and friends in the following days. I went back to bed for an hour or so, then got up and decided to try to eat something. I also decided to drink some fluids because that’s the advice you always hear when you’re sick.
A little while later a brother priest came by and recognized my condition. “You’ve got the flu, don’t you?” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe it was something I ate? I’m not sure what I have, but I know that I puked pretty hard early this morning,” I explained. “Do you still feel sick?” he asked. I started to answer, “I don’t know. I had a little bit to eat, and I’ve been drinking Gatorade, and…” At that very moment I shot up from my chair and ran to the bathroom, back to my kneeling position. “I’m outta here! I’ve got four Christmas masses this weekend!” he yelled as he quickly left my presence. I didn’t blame him.
I started calling and texting friends a little while later, alerting them to my situation and cancelling some plans and potentially canceling others. I called a friend from my first parish – a wife and mother of six children with vast experience of tending to the sick – and she told me about the BRAT (bananas, rice, apple sauce, toast) diet, but I really didn’t feel like eating anything at that point. I just wanted to sleep, so that’s what I did from about ten o’clock that the morning until around six o’clock that evening.
Another one of my friends texted to see how I was doing and to inquire whether I had eaten anything. I said that I had not. She too mentioned the BRAT diet. I told her that I had heard of it. She asked if I was by myself. I told her that I was. She asked if I had any medicine. I told her that I did not. About two hours later she and her mother drove over and she dropped off a banana, applesauce, ginger ale, soup, and some cold and flu medicine. But here’s the thing, like my priest friend, she literally set the supplies in two bags on the counter and left. And I didn’t blame her.
No one wants to get sick, especially two days before Christmas. My friends didn’t want to get close to me for fear of contracting whatever it was that I had, which turned out to be a twenty-four hour stomach bug. Who could blame them? I certainly would not want to give that nasty virus to anyone, let alone my good friends. But sickness is lonely and isolating, and I didn’t want that either. And then it occurred to me that perhaps the reason the Lord allowed me to suffer the stomach bug was to bring me to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for his Incarnation.
One way to understand the reality of sin is as sickness. That sickness began when our first parents turned away from God and into themselves, as reported in the third chapter of Genesis. Since the fall, every human being has been born with a condition that we call Original Sin. (There is one exception, but even she who was conceived without sin was not responsible for her sinless condition.)
What does sin do? It separates us from God, and consequently, from one another. Sin brings division. God’s original plan for us was to be in union with him and communion with our brothers and sisters. Remember that God is a communion of persons (Father, Son and Spirit), and if we are made in his image and likeness, then by our very nature we are made for communion. But sin is a sickness that distorts our nature and turns us in on ourselves and isolates us, very much like my stomach bug isolated me from my friends and my usual healthy self.
The other important thing to know about sin, which is unlike the stomach bug, is that it doesn’t go away by itself, you can’t get rid of it yourself, and no other human being can get rid of it for you. Think back to my two friends who didn’t want to be around me in my sickness. Why did they avoid close contact with me? Because they didn’t want to get sick themselves. They knew that if they got too close to me that it was very likely that they would contract my virus and then they too would be kneeling on their bathroom floors in the wee hours of the morning, crying out to the Lord. To avoid such a situation, they kept their distance.
So if we can’t save ourselves from sin and if we can’t save each other from sin, then who, if anyone, can save us? Are we doomed? No. The only one who can save us from the sickness of sin and restore our health is the one who gave us our lives and our original, untainted health in the first place: God. But in order to save us, God entered into our condition, taking on our human nature, while at the same time, maintaining his divine nature in one person, Jesus Christ. He was sent by the Father to enter into our sin-sick world and save it from the inside out.
It all began at his birth. Note that when God came to save us from our sin-sickness he didn’t enter into a place of sterility, opulence, and order, but was born in an undignified stable and then placed in a manger because his parents couldn’t find a room in town. He was born into disorder. And his entire mission followed suit. He was constantly going out to those who were sin-sick and offering them healing and the remedy of his very self. He never feared drawing close to the prostitute, the tax collector, or the leper. He encountered the deaf, the blind, the mute, and the crippled, and even the dead and he brought them hearing, sight, the ability to speak and sing, the power to leap and run, and even restored life. (In Matthew 8:17, immediately after Jesus cast out demons and healed the sick, we are told, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took on our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”)
The worst kind of sickness is a sickness that results in death. And that is that very nature of our sin-sickness. The wages of sin are death. In order for God to save us from death, he chose to enter into death, not to be destroyed by it, but to ultimately conquer it, from the inside. This is what we call the Paschal Mystery. Jesus, who is true God and true man, without sin and is the innocent victim, dies on the cross of Calvary, and in his dying, he conquers death itself. He destroys the virus that is sin through his Resurrection, never to die again.
Jesus Christ, therefore, is not only the doctor, but he himself is the medicine. There is no wound, no illness, no hurt, no pain, no heartache, no depression, no suffering, no infection, and no brokenness that Jesus cannot encounter, relieve, and ultimately cure. This is precisely what we mean when at mass we say that he “takes away the sins of the world.” The sin of the world is the sin-sickness of the world. It is also the context from which to understand the private prayer that the priest prays just before he receives communion: “May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgment and condemnation, but through your loving mercy be for me a protection in mind and body and a healing remedy.”
The Body and Blood of Christ that we receive at every mass is the same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem. It’s the same Jesus who reached out to lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the blind, the deaf, the mute, the lame and the dead and healed them. It’s the same Jesus who took on the sins of the world and was nailed to the cross at Calvary, died and rose from the grave three days later, beating death and sin-sickness once and for all. It’s that same Jesus who wants to draw intimately close to us every time the Eucharist is celebrated, which is what St. Ignatius of Antioch called “the medicine of immortality” and “the antidote against death.” Jesus doesn’t want to remain distant from us in our sin-sickness, but wants to literally draw close and enter into our lives as we take in his Body and Blood, which is medicine for the sin-sick soul. It’s also why – whether kneeling in a pew or on the bathroom floor – we can say, “Emmanuel.”