Twin brothers, born in Arabia, were excellent physicians. They refused to charge their patients. They offered their doctoring skills for free. And they were not prejudiced. They respected and treated every person, regardless of color, status, religion, or race. They welcomed all as Christ. They believed that everyone they touched, everyone they helped, everyone that came to them, was no different than Jesus Himself. And so respect, not shame. Mercy, not judginess. Compassion, not meanness. Assistance, not fear. That’s how they treated each person.
Because of this, two things happened. First, they did not shy away from saying that they were Christian, and that their love of Christ compelled them to take not one penny for their services. And their love attracted more and more of the hurting and dying. They were attracted, not to these twin brothers, but to the love of Christ: a love for Jesus which compelled these two men to love all with real, genuine, authentic love.
Secondly, these brothers were maligned, insulted, harassed, persecuted, literally crucified, and then beheaded. For not taking the easy way. For not backing away from those in need. Because they loved Christ. And because their love moved them not to treat anyone differently.
Definitely, these brothers took sides. They sided with Christ. Assuredly, these brothers were defiant. They defied any attempt to back away from the marginalized. Most certainly, these brothers protested. They protested every attempt to set us against them; to see anyone as someone to be written off.
These twin brothers were St Cosmas & St Damian, whom the Church remembers with great affection today. We ask them to pray for us, that we may be delivered from all evils that beset us, especially the evil of pride and ego, of arrogance and conceit.
For at the heart of every good deed that Ss Cosmas & Damian performed—at the heart of it all was humility. A humility that refused to threaten, to bully, to be impatient. A humility that refused to take offense, that refused to be sensitive to the meanness of others and insensitive to others needs. A humility that was poised in their skill, but more confident in the Lord’s will.
And look where that humility led them. To humiliation. And being humiliated while they hung naked on a cross.
Yet they did not flinch. And they did not fear. And they did not flee from beheading. For Ss Cosmas & Damian knew that the Lord who helped them heal others would affix again their heads, and heal their wounds, and lift them up, and exalt them. Just as He does for everyone who humbles himself for Christ’s sake. Just as Jesus had done for His own Mother. For she said, “He has put down the mighty and lifted up the lowly.”
The lowly and the lowliest are the ones Our Lord reaches out to; the ones He especially embraces. Not because they are downtrodden or in need of a self-esteem boost. But because humility is the way of life for those who pick up their cross daily and follow Christ.
Most of us are humbled, and humiliated, when we suffer the indignities of a debilitating illness. When our self-sufficiency and independence is restricted. When we lose our dignity by having someone care for us, especially in our most private moments.
Consider, then, the man with dropsy—what we today call edema. We meet this man in today’s Gospel. Because of his illness, this man is humbled and feels demeaned. No doubt, he is despised and rejected, a man acquainted with pain and sorrow, a man who is embarrassed and shamed because he looks different, moves differently, and is not able-bodied. This man is one of those that Ss Cosmas & Damian would treat. Because he is a man that Jesus considers, heals, and cares for.
What is ironic is that this man’s illness is a symbol for pride. His swollen tissues make many think of those with swollen heads. His body’s insistence on retaining water looks no different than a proud person’s insistence of retaining his own puffed up opinion of himself, and his politics, and his lifestyle, and his religiousity. All at the expense, at the belittling, of anyone who dares to disagree.
Isn’t pride—making sure I get mine, that others take notice and respect me, that my voice is heard, that others love me as I am—isn’t that our greatest spiritual affliction? And doesn’t that pride show itself when we demean, when we sneer at those whom we are sure are wrong? Or worse or less than us?
Perhaps if our humility was on display, as it was for the man with dropsy; perhaps if we could feel our head swell, every time we rush to take the best place and push others aside—then we might practice true humility.
To teach the Pharisees who can’t see or feel their pride, Jesus reduces the swelling for the afflicted man. And with this miracle, He announces that He will assuredly stand beside all those who wish to put away their pride, those who desire to be done with impatience and shoving themselves to the front. And more so, Our Lord will promote and encourage those who embrace the gift of humility—a gift many of us despise, but which the holy saints like Cosmas and Damian hold onto for dear life.
In this Gospel reading, as in most episodes like this, the Church wants us to see that we are very little different from the Pharisees. That the sin that kills us is the pride we refuse to see, and confess, and reform. And, in that way, we are also like the man with edema, a dropsy not of the body but of the heart; not in the joints but in the soul.
Yet there stand Ss Cosmas and Damian. Quick and ready with their prayers to lead us out of ourselves. To help us get out of our own way, so that we might be on the right way. And to direct us in the way of humility, even to the point of humiliation. For humiliation is the route Our Lord took when He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
And in these holy saints—and all other saints whose lives and prayers inspire us—in them stands Our Lord Himself: quick and ready with His mercy, quick and ready to deflate our self-opinion so that we might find solid ground in the worth He ascribes to us, in the value He places in us, in the hope He enlivens in us.
For that is how Ss Cosmas & Damian were able to live and die. Not by hoping in their own skill; and not by finding hope in the movements, events, and promises that cry for our attention. Rather, as the saints do, we must pin our hopes to Our Lord’s way of humility, so that we too, in Christ, may be lifted above the frustrations and fears this world brings—lifted up by Our Lord into a society, a kingdom, and a life that calms, restores, grounds, braces and settles us.
A homily for Pentecost XVI
27 September 2020