It's easy to compartmentalize the church as being in the sin business. After all, religion defines what's good and evil, tells the story of sin's origins, wields commandments, and warns about punishments. It even offers means of expiation and reconciliation to those who seek it.
But the church is better understood as being in the healing business. Its mission is to announce the reign of God--not really a time or place so much as an encounter with ultimate restoration for a broken world.
Our healing mission issues from some pretty basic Christian tenets: Creation is good. Life is a gift from God. Human life encompasses both body and spirit. What threatens the wholeness of either is contrary to God's will. Christ is God's vehicle for redeeming the wholeness that the world has lost.
If we accept those simple assertions, then the church's long history in the health care industry makes sense. Since the first generation, the New Testament gives evidence that praying for the sick and anointing them was standard operating procedure. Bringing Eucharist--our primary sacrament of healing--to the sick was an early practice as well.
St. Paul lists healing as a charism of the church that comes to us courtesy of the Holy Spirit. Matthew notes that visitation of the sick is an item upon which our Christian integrity will be measured at the final judgment. This led to its inclusion as a corporal work of mercy to be exercised in a life of virtue. Is it any wonder that until the 18th century, the church had a virtual monopoly on hospitals and hospices in the West?
This, should bring courage to most of us, since if we re not (yet) sick ourselves, we probably know someone who is. The experience of illness and disability fingers our very identity and challenges our confidence in the meaning and value of life. It can make even the most intellectually sophisticated among us plunge into a state of mind that is almost pre-scientific: Why is this happening to me, and why now? What have I done to deserve this? Is there some bargain I can strike to make this darkness lift from my life and exit my body?
If we've ever spent a frightened hour contemplating our fragile mortality in these terms, we can begin to appreciate the mindset of ancient biblical writers who examined the limitations of their existence in much the same way.
It helps to note that before the 19th century, even doctors didn't see the value in washing their hands before treating a patient; the relationship of germs, viruses, and other biological roots of disease were improperly understood until very recently.
For most of history, sickness was not viewed as having a determinable cause that might be removed, governed, or in some way manipulated. Health was deemed an aspect of nature that God alone had the power to bestow: "I, the Lord, am your healer" (Exod. 15:26). God might also retract that blessing: "I make well-being and create woe; I, the Lord, do all these things" (Isa. 45:7).
In the absence of science's discovery of root causes for disease, the people of the Bible were more concerned with matters of purity than contagion in time of sickness. When someone was struck with a skin ailment, or blindness (both were common conditions transmitted by poor hygiene in the ancient world), the understanding that God's pleasure had been revoked from that person or household was sufficient reason for social expulsion to follow.
So we hear story after story of lepers living in the wilderness, or blind men approaching Jesus at a crossroads. …