THE DIGNITY of the HUMAN PERSON in HEALTH CARE: THE PATIENT as CHRIST

Like all human beings, patients receiving medical care can be identified with Jesus Christ by virtue of the Incarnation, the mystery of God becoming man.. This mystery is expressed by the angel Gabriel’s words to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). It is likewise expressed in the Gospel of John: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Jesus, who from all eternity was the Son of God, took to himself a fully human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Being fully human, Jesus is like us in all things but sin (See Heb. 2:17, 4:15). He identifies with us in order to take upon himself the curse of our guilt and take away our sin. (See Gal. 3:13, John 1:29). Redeemed by his blood, all of humanity is identified with Christ, drawn to him who is lifted up, and gifted with the grace of salvation (See John 12:32, 1 Tim. 2:4).

Patients suffering illness are also identified with Christ in a particular way. That is because Christ came into this world to suffer and chose to identify himself with those who suffer. “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb. 2:18). Jesus performed miracles of healing for the sick. He associated with the suffering and the downtrodden. He declared blessed those who weep and mourn (Luke 6:21; Matt. 5:4). He showed the meaning of neighborly love by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, who went out of his way to care for a “half-dead” man (Luke 10: 29-37). Jesus freely submitted to horrible suffering and taught his disciples that the way we treat the least of his brothers, including those who are ill, is the way we treat him (Matt. 25:31-46).

Jesus identifies himself with those who are ill and who suffer. He also invites us to be more closely united with him when we are ill and suffering. Jesus tells his disciples that to follow him they must take up their cross in imitation of his self-sacrifice (Matt. 16:24). St. Peter tells Christians to “rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 4:13). And St. Paul echoes the same theme, saying, “As Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ, does our encouragement also overflow” (2 Cor. 1:5). The reason for joy and encouragement for those who share the sufferings of Christ is that, by sharing Jesus’ suffering, Christians also share in Jesus’ resurrection. St. Paul says, “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Col. 1:24). By suffering with Christ, we join him on the way to eternal glory. What is more, by suffering with Christ as members of his body, we share in the redemptive purpose of Christ’s suffering. Again, St. Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions” (Col. 1:24).

Jesus identifies himself with the ill and those who suffer and invites us, especially when we suffer, to identify with him. By suffering with Christ we share in his glory and in his redemptive self-sacrifice. This profound identification between Christ and those who suffer with him reveals to us the meaning our suffering can have and the truest identity of our neighbors who suffer illness and pain. Looking at these people with eyes of faith, we are brought to the realization that the sick persons whom we love and serve are not just patients. Neither are they merely human beings, as dignified and as precious as their humanity is. In a very real way, they are Christ. The sick and those who suffer are identified with Christ by his Incarnation. They are identified with Christ through his identification with them in his own suffering. They are identified with Christ when they freely unite their sufferings with his for the redemption of the world. When we visit the sick and minister to those who suffer, we encounter Christ. “I was ill and you cared for me” (Matt. 25:36).