Pneumonia sounds like crinkly paper when heard through the stethoscope. Shingles causes angry blisters and scabs across the chest or face. Appendicitis makes the abdomen firm, and causes its sufferers to turn their heads and gasp when I touch them in the right lower quadrant of their bellies.
Kidney stones make men and women dance and writhe, one hand propped against the flank as if they could make it move on their own. Broken bones, sometimes, look swollen in a way that bruises don’t. People with heart attacks are often pale and sweaty, and their eyes say, “I may die – please do something.” And the dying, who are beyond rescue, know it as their breath becomes shallow, their heartbeats faint and their skin cool.
Very sick children do not climb the bed or go through the cabinets, but lie still and move their heads to look at me with purposeful, weary movements. Those with asthma plant hands on their knees and use every muscle to grab molecules of oxygen and pull them as deeply as they can, which isn’t far when their airways spasm and close.
You see, we can only know them, only truly treat them, when we walk among them. When we know the feel of their skin, the rough texture of their rashes, the desperation in their eyes, the sorrow in their hearts, the lies and truths they tell, the fears and hopes they hold.
At Christmas, we celebrate the physician. Not the earthly ones, but the eternal one. He knew everything, but came to share his patients’ pain. He came to where agony walked the streets, misery haunted the alleys, pain stalked the roads. He was born where tyranny ruled, where justice was not for all, where crushing poverty was nothing more than the destiny of the masses. He lived in a world where children regularly died of illnesses we now treat as outpatients, where men and women were commonly enslaved and where most lives were short – sometimes a blessing. He came to a world diseased by death and saw it firsthand, in the flesh of the sufferers. The good physician who came down to touch, smell, taste, hear and see every affliction of man.
He was born in poverty to know the poor patients. He was a king; therefore the rich ones could relate to him as well. He could read and write, and was wise, so the educated could know him. He possessed no degrees, so the uneducated were not threatened by him. He was loved, as everyone wants to be. He was hated, as so many are.
Jesus knew the diseases and situations of every human – every patient in his practice, you might say. He walked among men, and like a modern doctor who knows his patients by being among them, Jesus came to us. His presence was a sign of his dedication and love, a mark of his commitment to see us disease free.
Just as I listed some illnesses and their presentation, Jesus could tell us the way poverty feels, the way injustice looks, the sensation of execution, the taste of bitter tears, the smell of the dead and risen. He could diagnose the oppressor and oppressed, the sinner and the saint. He was the master diagnostician, for he not only walked among the sick, but in the end took their greatest sicknesses upon himself.
Sickness relieved is a beautiful thing. A heart attack treated takes the elephant off the chest and leaves a smile. A child made well, a broken bone splinted, a wound closed, a tooth numbed, an abscess opened are among the reasons that physicians, at least at first, decide to walk among the sick.
However, we poor doctors, with our paltry degrees and bags of tricks, can only do a little. We merely treat the symptoms. He treated the disease. He brought an end to it all with his birth, death and resurrection. No more sin, no more death. He offered every patient the cure, free of charge, with no need for insurance or cash.
How it must feel to be him! Not to cure the broken bones, but to offer healing to the broken hearts. Not to excise the tumor, but to remove the guilt. Not to bypass the heart, but to replace it with a new one.
At Christmas, we celebrate the child. How blessed we are that he walked among us, knew our every disease, then grew up to become the only physician qualified to heal us.