A guide from Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard O.Carm
An important aid to our prayer at this time is to follow the weekday Gospels which would normally have been read at Mass.
A good reading of the day's Gospel can become the basis of Lectio Divina, the way of prayer with the Bible as described in the Diocese's leaflet, copies of which are in the Narthex.
This week is the fourth week of Lent and this is the week when the Gospels are taken from the Gospel of John for the next two weeks. The traditional symbol for this Gospel is an eagle, it is the Gospel which soars about the other three in its presentation of Jesus, the Word made flesh for us.
(The symbols for the four evangelists come from the Apocalypse, Apoc 4,7.
The image here is in Relic Chapel, Aylesford)
The lectionary, the book of our readings at Mass, was drawn up in 1970. It was only some decades later that the Gospels came to be understood as stories, three with similar plots (the Synoptics), the fourth (John) being a distinctive story on its own. Because the Lectionary editors decided on a three year cycle for Sundays, the Gospel of John was read only in the special seasons of the Church's year. The result is that the presentation of John's Gospel is rather piecemeal with no sense of the overall development of the story and its context. That is rather better for the weekday readings but it is that overview which needs to be the background to our reading.
The key to the Gospel is found at the end, John 20,30-31 (chapter 21 being an epilogue). Here we are told that these things (the Gospel) are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and, believing, have life in his name." Believing in Jesus (always a verb, the noun is never used) is the key to this Gospel. And that believing is a radical total commitment to Jesus the Son of God who became fully human for us. "No one can come to the Father, except through me" (Jn 14,6, a reading familiar from many funerals.)
Therefore following the initial presentation in the first chapter, the evangelist begins the Gospel with an exploration of how different people respond to the call to believe in Jesus. This section from Cana to Cana because the evangelists presents two signs at Cana in Galilee (2,11 and 4,54). The first sign is the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana (Jn 2,1-11). The second is tomorrow's Gospel (Monday 23rd March), the healing of the official's son (Jn 4,46-54).
In this section we are presented with a rich cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds. There is John the Baptist whose believing and witnessing to Jesus begins the story in the first chapter (Jn 1,19 and Jn 3,25-30). There is the Mother of Jesus who is never named so as to be a model for all of us. She reappears at the crucifixion, Jn 19,25-27 where the unnamed Beloved Disciple is also a model for us. She believes in her son and so she is able to control events "Do as he tells you" she says to the servants (Jn 2,5).
Then there is Nicodemus, Pharisee and leading Jew who comes to Jesus by night and never leaves the night (Jn 3,1-10). Eventually, he buries Jesus with so many spices that he can have no hope of a resurrection (Jn 19,39).
By contrast, there is the Samaritan woman whose story we heard on the 3rd Sunday just a week ago. She meets Jesus at noon when the sun is at its highest and the light strongest. She comes from the opposite end of the social scale (all those husbands) and is not a Jew. Yet she has a lengthy and robust conversation with Jesus which leads her witnessing to him to her fellow villagers who conclude that they believe for themselves (4,42)
Finally we have the royal official and his household, the Gospel for Monday.
The entry point for the weekday readings of the Gospel of John is therefore the second sign at Cana in Galilee. The reading begins with the transition from Samaria to Galilee. This makes the first indication of some sceptism about Jesus which will be followed up in this incident.
The evangelist has carefully bracketed this opening part of the Gospel with a clear link (Jn 4,46) between two signs leading to believing in Jesus. The first is definitely Jewish, the second is most likely Gentile.
Whilst the official is clearly an important administrator with his own servants, his ethnicity is not entirely clear. This incident is another encounter between Jesus and an individual. We note that he is first described as an official, then as "the man" and finaly as "the father".
As we read through the story, themes appear through the key words of the incident.
Jesus' doubts about signs and wonders in verse 48 is aimed at the Galileans just mentioned, the "you" is plural. It then becomes the sign at the end: a true sign leads to believing in Jesus. We will see the importance of this in tomorrow's Gospel.
Jesus response to the official's request to heal his son is the challenge is to believe that the son will live. This must not be seen as a lack of compassion on the part of the human Jesus but rather as the evangelist making his theological point.
The man therefore believed in the word Jesus spoke. As with the Mother of God so here too "The Man" is used as a model for all who believe in the word Jesus speaks.
Believing in Jesus therefore drives the story: verses 49, 53 and 54
Life is the underlying theme: Go your son will live in verse 49. Compassion comes out as the story develops, the official becomes a father and the son a little child.
Believing and living are therefore the themes of the evangelist in verse 51 as he concludes the first part of his Gospel. It's a strong and positive message about the commitment to the person of Jesus, themes which will be continued through the Gospel to its conclusion (Jn 20,30-31). It makes a good start to the weekday Gospels.