Jesus went over to her and, taking her by the hand, raised her up, and the fever left her. She then took care of their needs.
Mark 1: 31
What is the effect of a true encounter with Jesus? Today’s description of Jesus in the house of Peter and of his healing of Peter’s mother-in-law lays out the nature and effects of that encounter.
When Jesus enters Peter’s house he is informed that Peter’s mother-in-law lays sick with a fever. Jesus, immediately, goes “over to her.” It is of the very nature of Jesus to pass over to the suffering and weakness of the other. It is the very imperative of his life and call. He doesn’t merely drop by her sickbed to greet her but rather goes over to her and takes her by the hand. We are reminded of his teaching to the pharisees and scribes that we shall hear in Mark’s next chapter: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Mark 2: 17) Jesus is drawn to be with those who are sick, suffering and sinners, those who need him. This, of course, is all of us. Our task is to live deeply and truthfully enough so that we know our need of him.
Jesus heals here, as most often, by touch. In a true encounter with Jesus, we are touched by him. As the author of the first letter of John writes:
Something which has existed since the beginning
that we have heard,
that we have seen with our own eyes;
that we have watched
and touched with our hand:
The Word who is life—
this is our subject.
1 John 1: 1
Jesus is not a philosopher or an ideal; he is a person who desires to truly touch us and heal us where we most need to be touched and healed. Usually, Jesus does not heal at a distance but rather by coming over to us and taking us by the hand. Such an encounter, however, presumes our willingness to be approached and touched. It requires of us that we welcome Jesus into our lives in those places where we ordinarily welcome no one, including ourselves.
Jesus then “raises up” Peter’s mother-in-law. The experience we have when the love and mercy of Jesus approaches us in those places where we are sick and suffering in body and spirit is that of being “raised up,” of standing in the truth of our own being, a being whose value and call is grounded in God’s love for us. A contemporary song made famous by the singer Josh Groban well expresses this experience:
When I am down and, oh, my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then I am still and wait here in the silence,
Until you come and sit awhile with me.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to more than I can be.
A central theme in the gospels is that Jesus has come not only to be raised up himself but to raise up all of us with him. To encounter Jesus and so to know our life in him is to become a new person. That newness of life, however, is not a life that is foreign to us but rather is our own true life in God Because that life, in ordinary experience, can be so distant from us, we may feel, as the lyrics say, that we have become “more than [we] can be,” but, in truth, Jesus raises us up to who we truly are in God. Being touched by him, we awaken from the sleep of the false form we have adopted and realize the “life to the full” that Jesus promises.
Finally, being “raised up” by Jesus and healed, Peter’s mother-in-law enters uniquely into the mission of Jesus: “She then took care of their needs.” Simone Weil says that “love is a direction.” To experience the approach, touch, and healing of Jesus evokes in us our own capacity to approach, touch and heal in the situation in which we find ourselves. The only response there is to having received such love is “to take care of” the needs around us. And, having encountered the love of Jesus, we shall find ourselves aware of and attuned to those needs. This is the mission of Jesus, now shared with us through the experience of Jesus’ mercy toward us. It is our unique personal-communal capacity to take “care of their needs.” These are not the needs that we think we should be responding to but rather the needs that are truly there before us at each moment of our daily lives. We now live “not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20: 28) in whatever way the moment and person before us require of us.
To know and live the life of Jesus in us is to be, as he was, drawn to the one who is sick and suffering and who needs whatever our frail presence can offer. We only offer the life and love of Jesus, however, when we allow his mercy and love to come near us where we would most keep him at a distance. He can only raise us up by touching us, and what he asks of us is to allow him to do so.
A true Christian, then, may almost be defined as one who has a ruling sense of God’s presence within him. As none but justified persons have that privilege, so none but the justified have that practical perception of it. A true Christian or one who is in a state of acceptance with God, is he, who, in such sense, has faith in God, as to live in the thought that God is present with him, —present not externally, not in nature merely, or in providence, but in his innermost heart, or in his conscience. A person is justified whose conscience is illuminated by God, so that he habitually realizes that all his thoughts, all the first springs of his moral life, all his motives and his wishes, are open to Almighty God. Not as if he was not aware that there is very much in him impure and corrupt, but he wishes that all that is in him should be bare to God. He believes that it is so, and he even joys to think that it is so, in spite of his fear and shame at its being so. He alone admits Christ into the shrine of his heart; whereas others wish in some way or other, to be by themselves, to have a home, a chamber, a tribunal, a throne, a self where God is not,—a home within them which is not a temple, a chamber which is not a confessional, a tribunal without a judge, a throne without a king;—that self may be king and judge; and that the Creator may rather be dealt with and approached as though a second party, instead of His being that true and better self, of which self itself should be but an instrument and minister.
John Henry Newman, Sermon XVI: Sincerity and Hypocrisy