Feast of St Agrippina the Martyr of Rome
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, which has five porticos. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for 38 years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me in the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and took up his pallet and walked. —John 5.2-9 (RSV)
Gabriel Marcel, in his book Homo Viator, says hope comes into play when all other avenues have ended in blind alleys, when optimism is played out, and we are left with only the naked eye of faith peering into the dark mystery of God. Then, he says, we are ready to begin speaking of the theological virtue of hope.
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The man at the pool is one who possessed this great virtue. Thirty-eight years of waiting, of scanning the dark waters for the movement of the angel, yearning for someone to help him into the waters. All to no avail. Yet, he is still there. Still looking. Still waiting.
St. John Chrysostom says the perseverance of this sick man is astonishing, especially when you consider how easily most of us give up. He is absolutely right. He points out, “We might persist in prayer for something for ten days or so, and if we have not obtained it, we are afterwards too lazy to employ the same energy as [this man].” Or, perhaps, our faith stops short of true hope.
Not only did the man persevere long after common sense would have told him to give up, but he went on alone, with no one to help him. The reality of isolation, even while physically among the multitudes gathered around the waters, is one most modern people can relate to. It happens not only in large cities, but in small towns, wherever people are absorbed by their own business and fail to notice those around them. In particular, the sick—who can no longer run the race to success—are abandoned.
But, still, the man did not give up hope. Nor did he become cynical. Blessed Theophylact humorously points out that the man “did not rebuke Christ for asking a stupid question” when asked whether he wanted to be healed, but responded with meekness and humility. Nor did he point out the absurdity of being told to simply rise and pick up his mat to be healed. If that’s all it took, could he not have been healed years ago? Instead, he simply obeyed.
It makes me wonder if I will persevere to the end, perhaps in the face of great odds and then respond with such alacrity to God’s voice when I hear it. One can only hope.
Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas where she has been Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department, founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University and Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita. She has also served on Eighth Day Institute’s Board of Directors.