Dear My Brothers and Sisters In Christ,
Fr. John Powell teaches theology at Loyola University in Chicago. In his book Unconditional Love, he tells a beautiful story about Tommy, one of his students. Tommy was a self-proclaimed atheist. He didn’t believe anything. He especially scoffed at the idea that God could love people unconditionally. Tommy was, as Father jokingly put it, “a pain in the back pew.’’ Finally, the course he was taking ended. As Tommy handed in his final exam he said to Father in a cynical way, “Do you think I’ll ever find God?’’ Father replied, “No, Tommy, you won’t find God, but God will find you.’’ Tommy wasn’t expecting that answer. So he shrugged his shoulders and walked away. As he disappeared through the door Father wondered what would become of this strange young man.
A few years later Father learned that Tommy was dying of cancer. Before e could get in touch with Tommy, Tommy got in touch with him. As Tommy walked up, Father could see that his body was wasted away and his hair had fallen out from chemotherapy. But Tommy’s eyes were clear, and his voice was firm. “I came to see you,’’ said Tommy, “about what you said to me the last day of class. You said I would never find God, but that God would find me. “Well, when the doctor told me that I had only a short time to live, I did something I never thought I’d do. I started praying to God real hard. But nothing happened. Nobody answered. “I tried harder! But again, nothing happened. Nobody answered. Finally, after trying a few more times, I gave up. “It was then that I remembered something else that you said. You said it would be tragic for someone to die without having loved. Then you said it would be almost as tragic to die without having told someone you loved that you really loved them. “I decided to do something about that. I started with the toughest person of all: my dad. One night when we were home alone, I told him how I felt about him. “Then he did two things that I can’t remember him ever doing before. He cried, and he hugged me. The two of us talked all through the night, even though Dad had to work the next morning.
“Telling my mother and my little brother that I loved them was a lot easier. Like my dad, they also cried and hugged me. “Then an unexpected thing happened. Out of nowhere, God entered my life. He entered it with such a force and a power that I was overwhelmed. “That’s when I thought about what you said to me the last day of class. You said that I’d never find God, but that God would eventually find me. Well, Father, he found me! He really found me!’’
Tommy died shortly after that. Or as Fr. Powell puts it, Tommy never really died.
He began living in a different way. He began living in the way Jesus promised when he said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die.” John 11:25 And so the story of Tommy leads automatically to the story of Lazarus in John’s Gospel.
To understand the point of this story, we need to understand that when John refers to a miracle of Jesus, he uses the Greek word semion, which is best translated into English as “sign.’’ The word semion, or sign, stresses the idea that a miracle is like a flashing red light. The important thing is not the flashing red light itself but what it means or signifies. It’s the same way with a miracle. The important thing is not the miracle itself but what it means or signifies.
In the case of the miracle of Lazarus, the important thing is not that Jesus restored a friend to life. The important thing is what Jesus intended this miracle to mean, what he intended it to signify, what he intended it to teach. Jesus intended it to say in a visual way what he said earlier to Martha in a verbal way: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die.” John 11:25
And this brings us back to the story of Tommy. What Jesus did for Lazarus in a physical sense, he did for Tommy in a spiritual sense. He gave him a new life. And this leads us to each one of us. What message do the story of Tommy and the story of Lazarus contain for us? It is this: What Jesus did for Tommy and Lazarus, he wants to do for us. He wants to give us a new life. He wants to share with us his own risen life. He wants to raise us up to eternal life. This is the message that the story of Lazarus contains. This is the message that the story of Tommy contains. This is also the message of what the season of Lent is all about.
It’s about opening our hearts to others, as Tommy did to his family, so that Jesus can do for us what he was able to do for Tommy. It’s about receiving new life from Jesus today so that we can receive eternal life from Jesus on the last day.
Let’s close with a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It describes God’s tender love for the Chosen People in Old Testament times. God has this same tender love for us in modern times. “The LORD will comfort his people; He will have pity on his suffering people. . . .” ‘Can a woman forget her own baby and not love the child she bore? Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you.’ ” Isaiah 49:13, 15
No, Tommy, you didn’t find God, but God found you.