MARCH 4, 2008, TUESDAY OF FOURTH WEEK OF LENT: EZ 47:1–9,12; JN 5:1-16.
WHEREVER THE RIVER FLOWS, EVERY SORT OF LIVING CREATURE THAT CAN MULTIPLY SHALL LIVE. The prophet Ezechiel had a keen sense of the symbolic nature of the world and its many forms. He shared this sense with the prophets who had preached the word of God before him and left a record of their message in writings that have been preserved to our own day, through countless vicissitudes of history. The Lord Jesus too shared with the prophets a vivid sense of the symbolic dimension of nature and of human customs and behavior, as John’s Gospel makes clear in the account of the wedding feast of Cana, and the story of the fishermen who leave their trade to become fishers of men. Our Lord’s mind was formed by the reflections and prayer based on the Scriptures that so often have recourse to symbolic events, and make use of nature to convey their message of God’s holiness, wisdom, and power. In today’s readings we are exposed to this same tradition. If we know how to listen it delivers a message as fresh and pertinent for us as ever it did for past generations.
Living as we Americans do in a technological culture that is based on the findings of the relatively new sciences, we must make a particular effort to respond to the symbols that convey the truths revealed in the inspired words of Scripture. That need is far from new, of course. The larger part of preaching in the early centuries of the Church consisted in disclosing the intended spiritual meaning hidden in the words of the text. Saint Paul had already given the example of this interpretation in his letters. Abraham’s two wives, he tells us, are allegorical figures. Real in themselves, yet they are images of the two covenants (Galatians4:22–31). He then states his conclusion that we are freed by Christ, for “we are children, not of the slave-girl, but of the free-born wife.”
Saint John has a series of scenes of the life of Jesus that he calls signs. These striking events, reveal Jesus’ identity as life-giver, a savior. As a still deeper level, as the Lord states explicitly in his words to the Samaritan woman at the well, he makes it clear that the life he has come to bring is eternal. “The water I shall give the one who drinks wells up within and becomes a source of life eternal.” The Gospel we have just heard today is a further sign in fact, though John does not designate it as such. This striking healing of the man crippled for 38 years, who was unable to avail himself of the waters that are stirred up by the Spirit of God, reveals the compassionate and courageous heart of Christ. At the word of Jesus this helpless man recovers, and immediately his strength is restored. Subsequently, the Lord speaks to him, making it clear that at this healing word his earlier sins are forgiven; he has received a new life within. The physical healing, provided at the pool, is a sign of an interior health freely given by the word of the Savior. This hidden gift of a new life in turn leads to the still deeper reality of the presence of God’s kingdom in the person of his son. This divine presence, however, can be perceived only by those who accept the Lord in faith, as sent from God. The religious leaders are blind to this hidden meaning of the sign, given at the pool of living waters. They get caught up in a debate over man-made laws concerning the Sabbath observance.
What the Church has in mind in today’s Gospel is underlined by the first reading from the prophet Ezechiel. He describes in this passage how life-giving water flows from the temple through the desert making all it touches fruitful with a marvelous fecundity. These waters get their life from their origin in the temple. Jesus appropriated this image speaking of his body as the true temple whence the Spirit of God flows in life-giving abundance. Both of these texts, then, are reminders to each of us, as they were to those preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil, that in this sacrament of baptismal water, God freely bestows on us the eternal life that arises within, welling up from the active presence of his Holy Spirit. This gift of a life that has no end takes on its full scope begins with the reception of baptism, but attains its completeness only after we descend into the waters of death. This gift of fullness of life is the fruit of the love of Jesus. Saint Paul assures us that “having been reconciled to God by the death of his son when we were sinners, much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved in his life” Rom 5:10). Such is the sure hope set before us today at this altar where we are given a further sign in the Eucharistic sacrifice that God is our Father who so loves the one who believes in him whom he sends that “he gave his only son that . . . the believer might have life everlasting” (John 3:16).&
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger