Fr. Roger J. Landry
Pontifical North American College
Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent
April 3, 2000
Is 65:17-21; Jn 4:43-54
As we begin week four of our six week pilgrimage toward Calvary, the Church gives us a Gospel that not only reminds us that God can indeed work miracles this Lent, even in us, but also helps us to focus on the significance of the encounter with Jesus we’re making, or should be making, during this season. There are three stages in the encounter between Jesus and the royal official, stages which we see repeated time and again in the lives of our contemporaries whom we’re called to serve, and stages which can provide a healthy index for us to see where we are in our encounter with Jesus this Lent.
The first stage of encounter with Jesus we witness is Jesus as the superdoctor, miracle-worker, or means of last resort. The royal official, very likely a Jew from the court of King Herod Antipas, came to Jesus to beg for a miracle for his dying son. He didn’t really believe in Jesus, as Jesus himself says, but he was desperate. “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus states to him directly, “you do not believe.” Like his boss, Herod — who was fascinated by John the Baptist but eventually had him decapitated to fulfill a lustful promise, and who desired to meet Jesus to have him perform a sign, only then with his soldiers to treat him with contempt, mock him, cover him with a purple robe and send him to Pilate to get crucified — this royal official was not really interested in a life-changing relationship with Jesus, but only wanted something from him, to impose on him to see him perform a miracle for the sake of his son. He didn’t even have the faith of pagan Roman centurion who, when asking Jesus for a miracle, believed that Jesus could heal his servant by his word alone and considered himself unworthy to have Jesus enter into his house; the royal official, rather, came with no faith, just a hope in Jesus’ miraculous power, and insisted that Jesus make the journey with him to his home in Capernaum. I suspect we’ve had many occasions to meet people who continue to treat Jesus in this way, who come to him only when desperate, who plaintively make demands for their prayers to be heard immediately and who almost seem to treat the Lord as a magical employee-for-hire whose Job description is to solve problems, receive no payment in return and then politely get out of our lives until needed again. Sometimes, regrettably and frankly, it seems that even priests and seminarians can regress to this type of very distant relationship with Jesus when they fail to maintain a regular prayer life. But there is a grace in any encounter with Jesus, even if people originally come to him out of utilitarian or imperfect reasons, and Jesus can use it to draw people to the next studium of relationship with him, which is a trust in God’s word.
We see the royal official ascend to this stage in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells him, “Return home. Your son will live,” and St. John informs us that the man put his trust in the word Jesus spoke to him and started for home. The trust was obviously incomplete, since when he was later informed on the road that his Son was healed, he still needed to verify through his questions that it was on account of Jesus’ word. But he trusted enough to depart, hopeful in God’s word, without having to see the miracle with his own eyes. This is the beginning of faith, for a believer walks by faith and not by sight, as St. Paul writes to the Church of Corinth. He trusted in God’s word enough to act on it, to walk by this incipient faith back toward Capernaum. Countless good Christians today are at the stage of Christian life. They hear the word of God, trust it, and try to put it into practice. They do their best to keep the commandments. They believe Jesus when he talks about the Eucharist, about heaven and hell and salvation. They put their trust in the Church and try to do good to their neighbor. Many even are set on fire for the word of God and try to spread it. But often they stop here. Often the word, the linguistic communication of God, becomes an end for them, rather than a means to bring them into deeply personal contact with God. They stop at the law rather than go to the Legislator. They halt at the words of God rather than, through those words, come to the God who said them. The words themselves can almost become an idol and a roadblock to a deeper growth in faith. This can happen even occasionally to good seminarians and priests, when they begin to treat every word as equally important and fail to see the purpose behind them, when they neurotically attach themselves to the letter of laws without even trying to perceive their purpose or spirit, when they seem to pay more attention to taking their handkerchiefs out if a Mass celebrant doesn’t adhere to every red letter in the sacramentary rather than to entering more deeply into the prayer of Christ in the Mass. Listening to the Word of God and trying to put it into effect is obviously a good thing, and another grace-filled occasion, but it remains, in the final analysis, still just a means to lead us to the third stage of encounter, the PERSONAL adherence to Jesus as the Word Incarnate.
We read in the Gospel that upon the recognition that his son was healed at the very moment that Jesus said he would live, the royal official and his whole household “thereupon became believers.” Every miracle God works, every word He utters through the pages of Scripture, is meant to bring us to faith, not just in God’s power to work miracles, not just in the prophetic, sagacious and inspired words found in the pages of Scripture, but in God himself. And this faith in a person, if true, denotes a relationship that is meant to change everything in our lives. We no longer are independent agents, lone rangers, acting more or less on our own in a sort of loose, respectful trusting alliance with Jesus, but all our words, all our actions, and meant to be done through, with and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. Such a relationship is meant to help us to die to ourselves so that we might be able to say in truth, like St. Paul, that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. This is the totality of the personal relationship to which we’re called in Christ, so that others, in seeing us, particularly as priests, may say that we are truly other Christs, worthy to bear the name Christian. This personal encounter with Jesus is the goal of Lent. This is the goal of life. This is the goal of every Eucharist, when we literally become one flesh with the Lord so that he might live in us and together we might bear fruit that will last.