The amusement park ride was like an observation platform surrounding a large pole. The enclosed platform would rise on the pole giving the observers clear views of the surrounding park. On Dec. 31, 2016, at Knot’s Berry Farm in California, in the afternoon, a group of 21 passengers entered the platform. It began to rise and all were enjoying the sights. Something went wrong and it got stuck at about 148 feet. The amusement park tried to get the ride going again but could not. After numerous attempts they called the fire department. The ladders came but none could reach that height.
The only way to bring the passengers back to ground would be by rope. Included in the 21 were seven children. The fire fighters had to convince the passengers that the ropes would be safe. Captain Larry Kurtz explained that they can handle weight up to 9,000 pounds. He told reporters that the firefighters were trying to convince the passengers to have faith that they would be able to safely bring them home. Each passenger had to be convinced and to trust. Then one by one each made their decision. Over several hours all the passengers made it safely to the ground.
The Book of Wisdom says: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living … For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.” The passage acclaims that life is associated with God and death with the devil. God did not create death nor does he will that man should die. We all know life and experience it first-hand.
Death, however, is a reality we come in contact with but do not experience ourselves. When we lose a loved one or experience a horrendous tragedy, we might feel like we have died but we haven’t, we still live. God wants us to live. Yet we still have to face the reality of death. How do we do this?
Those passengers on the amusement park ride soon realized that that ride was no amusement. They had to face death. The real possibility of falling 148 feet creates fear. The firefighters were keenly aware of this fear. The people needed help in facing that fear through faith; they had to trust the firefighters and the rope they were throwing. The same can be said in the much larger context of life itself. God gives us the ability to place our faith in him. He does not force this on us but invites us to trust. Faith is built over time. And as in many things, small steps lead the way forward. In other words, small acts of faith lead to large acts of faith.
The gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy revolves around faith. Jesus’ ability to heal and restore life says something about him and his authority over life. At the same time, Jesus draws attention to faith in him and associates it with life.
The account involves two stories, one encased in the other. The story of the woman with the hemorrhages comes at the center of the story of the synagogue official. The woman is facing death. She regularly loses blood due to the hemorrhaging. Nothing can cure her. She has tried everything. She comes looking for Jesus with faith. She believes that he can save her. “All I have to do,” she thinks, “is touch his clothing and that will be enough.”
Notice the extreme. She does not think she needs to be touched by him, nor to touch him, just to be close to him will be enough. She believes that he has the power to heal and save. And he does. When Jesus realizes what has happened, he seeks her and says those beautiful words: “Daughter, your faith has saved you, go in peace.” Faith led the woman from facing a brush with death to an encounter with life.
The other story takes this to the next step, a confrontation with death itself. In the beginning of the account the synagogue official asks Jesus to come to the aid of his ailing daughter. The illness is grave for she is sick “to the point of death.” When the story picks up again, after the healing of the woman, news comes to the official that his daughter has died. The people think this is the end and urge him not to bother with Jesus. Jesus ignores their remarks and addresses the man: “Do not be afraid; just have faith.”
When they arrive at the house, the people are wailing in mourning. The little girl is clearly dead. When Jesus tells them “she is sleeping,” the people ridicule him. The ridicule highlights their lack of faith. Jesus tells them to leave. He then takes the parents, along with Peter, James and John and enters the room where the daughter lies. And at his word she not only rises but immediately walks around. All were “utterly astounded.” In both stories, faith leads to life.
The two main figures in the story point to the importance of faith in Jesus. Jesus is the source of life. Faith in him leads to life. God gives us life and wants us to live forever. Ultimately Jesus will face death himself. It is his faith in the Father that leads him through death to life. Our faith in him gives us a share in this life, eternal life. This faith is expressed concretely through baptism. We profess our faith (or our parents did it for us) and are sacramentally united with Christ so that we share in his faith, the faith that leads us through death to life.
There is an old adage that says as soon as we are born we start to die. I think one of the points of that saying is that we are going to have to face death throughout life. It’s not a “one shot deal” so to speak. There are different ways we face death. Sometimes it is through another’s death, sometimes it might be through a brush with death, still other times it might be the possibility of death.
More regularly it is associated with dealing with the simple challenges of living in an imperfect world where illness, sorrow, grief, fear, anger, violence, poverty, prejudice, injustice and so forth have to be faced. While God permits these as many are associated with human freedom, he gives us a way to confront them rather than be overcome by them – through faith.
The words Jesus says to the synagogue official, he says to us: “Do not be afraid, just have faith!” He is regularly “throwing us a rope” to grab onto. All that we are required to do is to believe. A simple act of faith and trust will lift the burden of worry, anxiety and fear. Doing this day by day, our faith will be strengthened like thread woven into string woven into rope.
Faith sees us through the dark or scary times to a place of security, hope and peace. It is in this place where we hear those other words of Jesus: “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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