‘The most important thing that can happen to a person,” Pope Francis explained during a homily on the First Sunday of Advent before confirming a group of parish children, “is to encounter Jesus, who loves us, who has saved us, who gave his life for us.” In our increasingly digital age, it can be easy to forget the living presence of the risen Lord in our concrete human lives. Where then, and how, do we encounter Jesus each day, an encounter bound to change our lives and make us happy and joyful?
Inspired by the rich magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI and the continued focus and approach of Pope Francis, I propose three places to meet the living Jesus. First, Jesus is alive in his word, the inspired Gospel stories and the living tradition of our church. Second, we meet Jesus in the sacraments, especially in regular participation in both the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation. And third, we meet Jesus in our loving service to those in need, those who live on the periphery of society.
This threefold way of describing where we encounter Jesus draws inspiration specifically from Benedict XVI. In “God Is Love,” he writes: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her threefold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.” In these three ways we meet and encounter Jesus in our time. To meet Jesus and be transformed by that encounter is the hope and joy of every person who is searching for God.
In His Word
In his first encyclical, “The Light of Faith,” Pope Francis writes, “The word which God speaks to us in Jesus is not simply one word among many, but his eternal Word.” But how do we come to meet and know and be affected by Jesus in our meditative and prayerful appropriation of his holy word? The story of the call of Simon the fisherman can shed light on this (Lk 5:1–11). Here Simon Peter encounters Jesus in his word and in the process becomes an evangelist, which each of us is called to be in our own unique way.
Luke tells us the crowd was “pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God.” Jesus got into Peter’s boat and asked him to pull out a short way. After he finished teaching the crowds, Jesus said to Peter: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for the catch.”
Peter responded, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” Peter must have been exhausted from a full night of catching nothing. He could have given in to his weariness, telling Jesus he had already tried; it was no use; it was better to go home. We might respond in this way when Jesus asks us to make certain decisions in life. We can reject his word and follow our own instincts. But not Peter.
Peter decided to obey the word of Jesus: to take a chance and put out into the deep and lower the nets, to run a small risk, to ignore his overwhelming fatigue and the possible threat of ridicule among his co-workers and friends. Jesus was forming Peter to be not only an apostle, an evangelizer, but the leader of the apostles. Jesus was helping Peter to see that obeying the word of God can lead to surprising success. They caught such a great number of fish that their nets were at the breaking point. More important, the dramatic experience changed Peter. He repented of his sins and followed Jesus.
So it must be with us. We must take risks for Jesus even and precisely when we seemingly grow tired of leading the Christian life and following the challenging moral laws of Christ and his church. We must live in such a way that our lives would not make sense if God did not exist. To be a follower of Jesus demands no less and no more than what Jesus demanded of Peter.
As men and women of the new evangelization, we can see in this Lucan passage the life-changing power of God’s holy word. Jesus is routinely in the boats of our lives, and his word encourages us to go out into the deep. The fish await us, those open to the new evangelization, precisely because we listened and acted upon the word. In these situations, we will encounter Jesus Christ joyfully and ever anew and, like Peter, become changed people and leave everything to follow Jesus.
We also encounter Jesus in the sacraments of the church, the sacraments of faith. In “The Light of Faith,” Pope Francis describes the sacraments as a “special means” for passing down the fullness of “our encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion.”
There is no better story than the healing of the paralytic (Mk 2:1–12) to give us a scriptural basis for the sacrament of reconciliation—an encounter, in our day, with the healing Jesus. Each of us can picture ourselves paralyzed in different ways from the mystery and debilitating effects of sin at different times in our lives. Each of us needs healing in our lives as did the paralyzed man in the Gospel story.
Mark describes a remarkable scene: a dramatic disruption of Jesus’ sermon in his house. Imagine we are all packed in the living room of his house when suddenly debris begins to shower down on us, a human-sized hole opens in the terraced roof and, lo and behold, a stretcher with a person strapped to it begins to descend slowly. An ingenious, persistent and bold quartet are determined to bring this paralyzed person to Jesus for physical healing.
What happens initially is certainly not what they had in mind. Without asking the paralytic any questions about his condition or the state of his soul, Jesus immediately says: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” What was planned by these four men as a pilgrimage for a physical healing turns suddenly into the healing of his sins. It was not until later in the story, after some of the scribes challenge his authority to forgive sins, that Jesus finally turns to the paralytic and says, “Rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
Jesus first forgives the paralytic’s sins and only later heals the physical paralysis. In a way, Mark challenges us to see sin itself as a kind of spiritual paralysis. Such paralysis, not unlike a physical paralysis, cannot be healed without the help of someone else. A skilled doctor, with the aid of attendants who bring the person to him, heals the person. In this case, friends bring the paralyzed man to a healing father who is able to diagnose and heal the underlying spiritual malady, the malady of sin.
This healing ministry of Jesus continues in our day. We call it the sacrament of reconciliation, a centuries-old citadel of healing and forgiveness. When we pull back the velvet curtain or open the door to the reconciliation room, think of Jesus healing the paralytic at Capernaum. Each one of us, from time to time, lies paralyzed on a mat in need of healing. We need a change of heart, metanoia—a movement toward God.
The sacrament of reconciliation is a personal encounter with Jesus, the same Jesus who spent a great part of his life on earth healing others and forgiving sins. Sins cannot be faxed, sent by email or delivered by Federal Express. Rather, the person has an individual encounter with Jesus in the person of the priest, which includes a confession of sin, an act of contrition and the intention to amend one’s life and do prescribed penance. Could there be a more personal encounter with the crucified, forgiving and healing Jesus?
Forgiveness is a divine prerogative and priority. It is so freeing and full of love, the love of a new start. As the paralyzed man was healed, each of us is healed and forgiven as Jesus continues his healing ministry in our day, each and every time we seek his forgiveness in the sacramental encounter of reconciliation.
In Works of Charity
Finally, we encounter Jesus in our works of charity. In “The Light of Faith,” Francis writes, “The hands of faith are raised up to heaven, even as they go about building in charity a city based on relationships in which the love of God is laid as a foundation.” In our works of charity, founded on the love of God, we encounter God. Francis also says that in Christ “our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us, from within, acting in us and through us.” As we imitate the love of Christ, we encounter him within us and in the persons we help. This dynamic is especially clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25–37).
We are familiar with the story. As a man traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho, he fell victim to robbers and was left stripped and beaten along the road. A priest and a Levite passed the man, perhaps more out of fear than indifference. If they touched a corpse, according to the law, they would have to undergo elaborate cleansing ceremonies before taking part in temple services. The Samaritan, however, was moved with compassion, and he went to great lengths to assist the man. Jesus then asked, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The scholar of the law responded, “The one who treated him with mercy.” And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
There are two neighbors in this Lucan passage: the person who acted with mercy and the person in need of mercy and compassion. In the deepest sense, yet in a very subtle way, the neighbor is the Lord Jesus in both persons. In every act of charity, we encounter Jesus in ourselves and in another person. The Samaritan was the least likely to be defined as neighbor in the parable, but he was identified as such. Like the Samaritan, each one of us—as a follower of Jesus—is called to be a neighbor to others, cultivating a sensitivity of heart that reaches out and bears witness in countless practical ways.
Jesus is also “the image of the invisible God” crying out from the man who lies stripped and half dead on the roadside. Jesus is the member of our family in trouble, or the person next door who has no one to turn to. In that person, we see the face of Christ and encounter him. In the Last Judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (25:40). Jesus identifies himself with those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, immigrants, in prison, sick, homeless—all those, to use the words of Pope Francis, on the “periphery” of society.
The road from Jericho to Jerusalem represents a world of neighbors, a world of people in need whose true face, once uncovered, is the face of Christ himself. It is humanity inviting us to meet Jesus and be changed by him. As we actively and concretely try to “go and do likewise,” we will also unexpectedly encounter a neighbor, a good friend named Jesus, who lives both within us and in the person who receives our charity and love. And these encounters with Jesus—in his word, in the sacraments and in works of charity—are transformative and everlasting.