This interesting homily allows us to discover some of the attitudes of Severus of Antioch to the vulnerable and disabled of Antioch in his own time. It was the tradition that in the weeks before the Feast of Pascha there would be a collection of fabrics for the benefit of those suffering from leprosy and other skin conditions. Severus urges his congregation to give generously because it is the intention of the heart which matters, and he reminds them that they have not always been generous in the past.
What are the reasons that he gives for such generosity?
- He considers Christ who became wounded for us, and by these wounds brought about our healing and salvation.
- The little gift to the one who bears wounds in front of us now should turn our thoughts to the one who was wounded for us so that our service to the least is a service to him.
- The wounds of leprosy and other conditions remind us that we are all wounded if we consider ourselves before God, and we need healing also.
- We would love to have been able to care for the body of the Lord Jesus with Joseph of Arimathea, but in front of us we find the possibility to embrace Christ in the least of our sick and suffering brethren.
- Christ is the Head of his body which includes those who suffer and are disabled.
- He asks us to serve him in our service to the least.
- If we wish to be healed, then we need to give something to God, and we give to God in giving to these least.
- If we wish to avoid ulcers then we need to embrace the brother with ulcers, and in covering his ulcers with the clothing we donate we are preserved from ulcers.
- We are to participate in the suffering of those who suffer and offer what is no more than the debt which is due to God and to them from our substance.
- Those whom we serve in this life will remember us and speak for us in the next.
This is an important message for our own times. We are to see Christ in every disabled and suffering person, and to recognise that we share the same union with them and with Christ in the Body of which He is head. To serve the least is to serve Christ, and to see Christ in the least becomes possible as we gain insight into our own brokenness.
Severus of Antioch – Homily 122 – Extracts
EXHORTATION ON THE USUAL GIFT OF PIECES OF LINEN FOR THOSE WHO SUFFER FROM THE ILLNESS OF LEPROSY OR ARE OTHERWISE SICK.
I remember having urged you, in times past, to bring — not with a miserly heart — fragments of scraps of linen for the necessary service of those who suffer from disease to the point of putting myself before you, interpreting the whole parable, which is in the Gospel, of the man who came down from Jerusalem to Jericho and explaining the meaning of it according to my small abilities.
So, you appeared then, on that day, eager and generous people for this gift, yet it was not the same as you appeared in the following year, but even though large in numbers you were small hearted.
Why, indeed, do we have such miserable dispositions and are we miserly even for pieces of cloth? Why? — Because we do not knowingly do the divine things, but we see everything with the eyes of the flesh, and, with the eyes of the spirit we see absolutely nothing. For I do not regard the little value of what is given, rather I have regard to the magnificence of the motive, that is, the intention, for which it is given. And seek understanding with love why, once in these days, did the chief of the deacons ascend into the sacred pulpit, and cry out in a public and proper proclamation to the meeting, and remind the congregation to bring this gift and to give pieces of cloth and scraps of linen for those who are corrupted with the disease of elephantiasis, or suffer from leprosy, or are afflicted and sick with other ulcers.
The prophet Isaiah, seeing this clearly in advance and with his own eyes and taking up the great audacity of the Jews, who contended against God, of his countrymen, cried out: He himself bears our sins, and it is because of us that he is afflicted with sorrow; and we have considered that he is in pain and wounded and in torment. He himself was wounded because of our iniquities, and he was sick because of our sins; the doctrine of our peace is upon him; it is by his bruising that we have been healed. When the prophet appropriated to himself the boldness and the outrage of his people, which were to take place with regard to the Saviour and our God, Jesus, and that he counted himself with the oppressors, “we ourselves,” he said, “his enemies and his adversaries, we who have wounded, we who have torn, we who have mistreated, it is by these diseases, by these wounds, by the stripes of him who was sick, of him who was wounded, of him who was slapped, that we were healed, so that, with such great salvation from him, the sufferings thereof be for us also a doctrine of peace.”
Therefore, this is what the prophet said: The doctrine of our peace is on him; “It is on him, as on a pillar, he said, that the teaching of our peace is written”. And immediately he puts the reason accordingly, and he says: Because it is by his wounds that we have been healed. Now the word: We, has many meanings; it is we who crucified, we who fought in every way, we who outraged and despised without pity. This is why he cried out in the Gospels also, offering us his own example for instruction: Learn from me, because I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Paul also writes what is in agreement with him, saying: For he himself is our peace. Of these salutary sufferings, of these wounds which heal, of the disease which heals and produces strength and health, there is mention shortly in the adorable feast of Easter. Therefore it is also at this time that we urge you to bring help for our wounded brothers, and that even with scraps of cloth only, As for you, when you have regard to the little value of the gift, as I said before, do not forget the motive worthy of God and the reality; have no regard for such or such, nor for him who is corrupted with leprosy and is full of ulcers and is lying on the ground, and do not be loathsome or loathing. But, while you see this one below with the eyes of the body, look up with the eyes of the spirit towards this one, of whom you clearly heard Isaiah prophesy: And he himself was wounded because of our iniquities, and he was sick because of our sins. You honour these wounds, by which you were redeemed from sin; you offer for the sacrifice this blood, which has overwhelmed your iniquity; you heal these wounds, by which you were healed, just as you were wounded by sin. These wounds were incurable, and behold, you were already stricken with death.
We hear the Holy Gospels recount that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and a small number of women with them honoured the body of our Saviour with myrrh and with aloes and with a shroud and with sweet spices, at the time of the tomb, and we consider these personages thrice happy, because they have obtained the right to serve the venerable body. And someone may say: “If only I had been in those days, so that I too could touch the holy body and participate in its burial or in some other service!”
Indeed, it is customary for men to proclaim happy what is past and to despise what lies in their power and count it as nothing and neglect it. But you still have now, O man, the power to embrace also the body of Christ, which is more magnificent than to touch it and to serve it. For the ulcer of this brother, who is stretched out in the square, for whom you frequently feel repugnance and whose sight you cannot even bear – but you pass by running and you still say that you yourself have the disgust and the nausea, rising in the air and forgetting your own mire and being puffed up with pride — belongs to the body of that one, first, because Christ is the head of all who have believed, who constitute the Church, and secondly, because he made it clear that he himself is fed through those who are hungry and that he is served through those who are sick: Verily, I tell you, he said, each time you have done it to one of my younger brothers, it is to me that you have done it.
You, therefore, apart from yourself, examine the reality, and, by the example of the reality which is proposed for examination, imagine that you find yourself very ill in your body. And, among your friends, many bring all that concerns your relief and your cure; and this one goes to the doctors; and that one, when you go to the bathroom, goes with you; another brings you and carries you in his hands, and he lays you down on the bed; and another sleeps in your own house during the night, and he shows you food and drink and if anything else is needed; and, to put it simply, they share with each other the care of your illness.
Such are also those who see Christ in our brethren, living and sick, and who neglect them and run past them and who are speechless regarding the ancient facts and say: “I wish to heaven I would have lived then, in order to share with Joseph of Arimathea and with the others in the eagerness they brought to the burial and to wrap and bury the divine body and to participate by this touch to sanctification and blessing.” You are permitted, indeed, even now, to touch him in many ways, and not just one; for whatever good deed you do, you will necessarily find that he is the first to meet you. You see him who is before you on the altar, just as he is seated on the heavenly throne; you approach and from there you receive him and you embrace him in your hands and you kiss him and you cover him with kisses and you present it to your mouth and you bring him inside of you and you have him all within you, at home. And, if you go to a prison and you visit the one who is in bonds, you will find him there still entirely who is bound, entirely who is lying on a bed with a sick person, entirely who is full of ulcers with this wounded one and this leper, totally stretching out his hand with the hungry, totally burning with thirst with the thirsty, because he takes upon himself the need of all and that he appears entirely close to each one.
Let us therefore honour him with all that suits and agrees with the needs and with the circumstances. So, it was burial time; and those who have hastened for that have buried him, and out of a profitable harvest they have reaped profit. Now he who is full of ulcers asks for a remedy; let us seize this opportunity with joy and strive to get ahead of each other. And let us not only give a piece of cloth, but also the whole garment, for those who suffer and are sick, because we are healthy, and these are tormented by ulcers. To those who suffer and are cruelly afflicted with pain, let us pay a just tribute. Let us indeed join them in their suffering, bringing them some relief and some consolation. For often some of them receive evils in this world, like Lazarus, for their sins and they are purified by affliction and pain; and they will be carried into the bosom of Abraham and into the abode of the righteous, and they will recognize those who have done them good, and they will receive them with joy.
Let him who is well today, remember that what is part of tomorrow is unknown; for the sufferings are general, and the future is invisible.
Let no one disdain and despise and count for nothing the ulcers of his neighbour, and he will not experience ulcers. Indeed, the ways of man are before the eyes of God, says the Holy Book; and, when he sees that you are benevolent and that you lean towards the suffering of your brother, he drives out of your body any cause which produces the disease and the corruption which comes from the elephantiasis and the leprosy and scabies and other ulcers. So quickly take off your cloak and throw it on him who is sick, knowing that with him you also take off the tunic of ulcers.
Take care, women, all of you who have pity — and indeed, your sex is particularly disposed to pity — that each of you throws for herself one of her own linens, and for her husband likewise one of his clothes, and the children alike. For each, what is given is salvation, a healing and rescuing debt. Sow abundantly on the body, which is sick, so that you harvest sheaves of health which are extremely rich.
“What? will say one of the men who are present. Do you want me to take off my clothes right now? And this is how you terrify me and pursue me. But above all, on the one hand, if, withdrawing for a little while, you still do this, you will appear to be very ardent in the faith and you will urge others to a similar zeal, and there will be for you also a reward for it. If, on the other hand, going to your house, tomorrow you want to do this or even something more important, within one day you will not cause any damage; just don’t forget what was said. If therefore you take off your clothes immediately, as it is possible for you, you will resemble those who saw Christ seated on the colt of a donkey and who took off their coats and lay down on the road.
It is therefore necessary that, for health and for all help, we give in exchange something to God who is helpful and our benefactor. Indeed, when Moses had armed himself and he had gone to war against Midian, once the combatants had returned, after they had defeated these enemies and when among them not a single one had fallen in the fight, but all had escaped, because of such a salute, when they had decided with one accord in the place of the whole army of soldiers, the leaders of thousands and the leaders of hundreds said to him, Your servants have numbered the warriors who are from us, and not one is missing. And we made an offering to the Lord, each one giving the golden object which he found, necklace and chain and ring and bracelet and jewel for the tresses of hair, to make atonement for us before the Lord? In the same way then it befits each of you, head and master of his house, to make offerings for the health and salvation of all who dwell there, and to make the Lord benevolent, that he may be propitious to him.
Indeed, what we have said of the pieces of cloth, we must pass also into very magnificent good works according to the measure of the resources of each one and according to the need of the needy, because Our Lord also says that a glass of cool water which is given brings back a reward to him who gives it; but then it is necessarily when it will be given to him who does not possess even that, in some place without water or because of lack of water. And indeed, if anyone here, giving to the needy glasses of water taken from the stream which from Daphne flows abundantly for us, believes they fulfill the commandment of the Gospel, he will be ridiculed, because he gives in a superfluous and useless way a drink which spills abundantly, and he does not believe that he fulfils the spirit of law.
And may our Lord and our God Jesus Christ, this legislator of the laws of life, give us both understanding to understand and strength to do what he has commanded, and make us worthy of the kingdom of heaven! May it come to pass that we all obtain it for glory and for the praise of his name, now and always and forever and ever! So be it!