‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
In closing his letter to the Colossians, St Paul mentions those Christians imprisoned with him, probably in Rome. Amongst the names given is “Luke, the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). Luke, the author of the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts – was also a physician, a doctor.
In the image below, from a fifteenth century altarpiece in Lubeck, Luke is depicted as a local GP in his surgery, medicines and ointments in jars on the shelves around him. One hopes the Blessed Virgin and Christ Child didn’t have to spend too long in the Waiting Room.
A priest is appointed to a cure of souls; a GP is trained to cure bodies. So, part of what surprises us about Luke the evangelist’s profession is down to our considering bodies to be somehow separate from souls and minds. (We still talk about ‘mental health’ not just ‘health.’) But I imagine, faced with any patient, Luke would say not: this is a suffering body or a suffering mind, but this is a suffering person. A person for whom I am called to care, to love.
Facing the tide of this virus, we think of our own physicians, doctors, nurses, paramedics, carers. As I write, half a million Britons have signed up to support the NHS as it prepares to meet the crisis. And we salute them.
The doctors and nurses, and those who have volunteered to help them are not looking after people’s bodies; they are looking after people. And may God bless them. They have chosen to care.
I have a treasured signed copy of a book called Patients Come First: Nursing at ‘The London’ between the two World Wars by Margaret Broadley. It provided valuable source material when I was researching an historical TV drama series set at The London Hospital. Writing in 1980, Margaret looks back at her life as a nurse in the East End, on what’s changed, and what’s remained the same. She describes how she and the other new nurses ‘entered the hospital with ‘Can I help you?’ written on our hearts. One thing that has stood the test of time and remains unchanged is ‘Can I help you?’
Margaret Broadley, Patients Come First
Jesus’ words from Matthew’s gospel quoted above remind us that ‘Can I help you?’ is also the key to the Kingdom of Heaven. Help in the practical forms of food and drink, clothing, medicine, but also in forms of welcome and companionship. Care, in short, for the whole person.
Let’s thank God for all our doctors and nurses and carers – like Luke, they are beloved. And with them, let’s write on our own hearts: Can I help you?
All over this country, particularly in our closed schools, children are drawing pictures of rainbows in support of the doctors and nurses working on the frontline. So, in that spirit, here’s the sublime Keith Jarrett…
God bless you all,
God of all grace,
grant to doctors and nurses everywhere
the strength and courage to care through the crisis,
and the knowledge that in caring for our weakest,
they are caring for us all,
through Him who came to serve and to save,
your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.