There are great joys that people in health care get to experience. Patients get well, receive favorable diagnoses, overcome difficult bouts of illness, and emerge from sickness with deepened gratitude and fresh perspective. Those who care for those patients feel that joy too, along with the satisfaction of having helped bring it about. But there is also a lot of sadness. As a priest working in health care ministry, I encounter that sadness quite a lot. When I am called to see a patient, it is often because he or she is dying or has died. Naturally, people who are dying and their loved ones experience great sadness. Very often, they also have deep faith and lively hope. I find it rewarding to nurture that faith and hope and to provide comfort through my presence and the sacraments I administer. But the sadness remains.
Jesus said that the sad are blessed. One of the beatitudes of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew is: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:5). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). Jesus calls the sorrowful blessed (some English translations say “happy”) because they can expect good things in the future – comfort, laughter – that will far outweigh the sadness they feel in the present.
This confident anticipation of future blessing is what Christians call “Hope.” Hope is the virtue by which the Christian believer faithfully clings to the blessed future that God has promised. The New Testament is filled with expressions of that promise. We have mentioned Jesus’ beatitudes. Consider a few more examples:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matthew 25:34)
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. (John 6:54)
I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11:25-26)
Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. . .. God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 21:3-4)
Promises like these are the content of Christian hope. God will save us, end our suffering, give us eternal life, and welcome us into His kingdom. This is the confident hope of all Christians. However, to those who suffer in especially egregious ways – whose deprivation, loss, or affliction plunge them into deep sadness – God promises particular blessing. Because God’s purpose is not only salvation for His people, but salvation for His afflicted and suffering people. We might call this God’s promise to reverse the fortunes of his afflicted people. And the Bible is filled with it. For example:
The Lord . . . raises the needy from the dust; from the ash heap lifts up the poor. (1 Sam 2:8)
God . . . changed the desert into pools of water . . . and settled the hungry there. (Ps 107:35)
[The Lord] has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. (Luke 1:52)
The last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matt 20:16)
Jesus came to us as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with infirmity” (Is 58:3). He “was tested through what he suffered” (Heb 1:18). When his friends wept, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). In his identification with human sorrow, he emptied himself “unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). And it was “because of this” that “God greatly exalted him” (Phil 2:9).
Jesus Christ was exalted because of his self-emptying solidarity with suffering and sorrowful human beings. Christian disciples who hope to be exalted with Jesus must share Jesus’ compassion for the afflicted and show love for Jesus in the afflicted. “Come, you who are blessed of my Father . . . For I was ill and you cared for me” (Matt 25:34,36). God’s saving promise, it turns out, is given especially to the sorrowful and to those who, with Jesus and for Jesus, give comfort and help to those who are sad.