4th Week of Lent (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula
By day a pillar of smoke led Moses' people through the desert; by night they were led by fire. Jesus transforms water into wine. He cures blindness, leprosy, and expels demons. When our martyrs died on the orders of Rome's emperors, angels appeared to take them on to God. During the Protestant Revolution in Europe—when Catholics were pulled away from the Church by reformers preaching against the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—hosts all over the continent bled at the fraction rite. Even now, our Blessed Mother appears to the faithful, encouraging us to pray more fervently. Signs of divine intervention and the wonders of God have been a constant element in the life of the Church since Gabriel appeared to Mary. But as constant as these signs and wonder are, they are not essential to the faith; or, they shouldn't be. When Jesus is asked by the royal official to heal his son, Jesus says, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” Is he frustrated? Angry? Impatient? It's hard to tell but probably not. More than anything he sounds disappointed. Disappointed that those who should be most familiar with the words of his Father's prophets seem determined to test his claim that he is the Messiah. We need don't signs and wonders in order to believe; in fact, waiting to believe until we have the evidence allegedly provided by signs and wonders is itself a sign of disbelief. We either trust God, or we don't.
When I counsel young men who think that they may have a vocation to the priesthood, I often run into the Signs and Wonders Phenomenon. Rightly so, these men ask for help with their discernment and wonder at their worthiness to serve the Church as priests. But more often than is healthy for their faith, they yearn for God to send them an indisputable sign that He wants them to be priests. I asked one young man, “Do you think God is going to send a giant angel to you one night and smack you on the head with sword and say, 'Johnny, I order you to become a priest'?” Johnny's eyes lit up and he said, “That would be awesome!” And it would be awesome, but it would also ultimately fail to strengthen Johnny's faith. Faith is our fundamental trust that God does not fail nor does He lie. Belief based on evidence—like the evidence of signs and wonders—is called knowledge. And knowledge isn't faith. For us and our relationship with God, faith comes before knowledge. We trust and then we know. Yearning after signs and wonders, longing for miraculous proofs of God's honesty and trustworthiness is a sign of faithlessness. This is why Jesus says to the official, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”
So, does God show us signs and wonders? I don't doubt that He can and does. He is prone to be kind to our weaknesses. The Church has recognized many miracles through the centuries, and she still recognizes them during the process of naming her saints. Though he clearly wanted his followers to trust in God b/c the Spirit moved them to trust, Jesus performed miracles—sometimes quite reluctantly—in order to prove his Sonship. Despite his disappointment in the official, he heals the man's son and the man and his household came to believe. Whether or not signs and wonders occur isn't the question. The question for us is: do we trust that God never fails, that He never lies; and do we trust in Him even when there are no signs and wonders? Our faith is tried most severely when there appears to be no reason at all to believe.
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