What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad!
But before the marvels took place, there came a time of testing and a step of faith.
Today’s first reading and psalm remind us of a time when people looked at Israel and said – “Here is a people God has truly blessed.” God’s intent is that people look at our Catholic Church and say the same.
Last week, the pope canonized seven new saints. Behind each canonization is not only the story of a human being who suffered martyrdom or poured out a life in service of others, but also the testimony of someone who suffered from severe illness being healed through that saint’s prayer to Jesus. Earlier this month, the authorities at Lourdes announced the recognition of the 68th healing for which there is sufficient medical evidence to declare a miracle. The Catholic Church is the place where God’s healing power is at work! These testimonies point to faith – the faith to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the faith to call upon a candidate for sainthood, the faith that Jesus can work powerfully in today’s world, if only we can make the right connection with him.
The story of Bartimeus is a story of faith at many levels.
First, Bartimaeus had heard about Jesus. There’d be no story to tell if Bartimaeus was unaware of who Jesus was, and what he was reputed to be able to do. Jesus could have been just another noisy passer-by as far as Bart was concerned – but no. Bart believed that Jesus had the power to do something for him – and he could only know that if someone had already told him!
Next, Bartimeus takes his first step of faith. He believes that Jesus can help him, so he cries out. Being blind, he can’t make a beeline for Jesus, but he can try to attract his attention. This isn’t a popular move with the crowd! The more the crowd tells him not to reach out for what he believes in, the louder Bart shouts. “Hey! Jesus! Over here! I need you!”
Suddenly, Bart’s role changes. He’s no longer the troublesome protester but instantly becomes Best Supporting Man – all the eyes of the crowd turn in his direction because Jesus has picked him out!
Now, another step of faith is called for. Jesus has noticed him – but isn’t going to come to him. No, says Jesus, “Come to me!”
What a mix of emotions Bart must have felt at that moment! Excitement. Fear. Adrenalin pumping. What’s going to happen next?
We are told he casts aside his cloak. A blind man abandons his cloak in the middle of a crowd! It’s the only thing he’s got to keep him warm at night. Perhaps it’s also spread out to receive the alms, the gifts of money, that compassionate travellers have quietly placed there for him. Cloak, money and security go flying and Bartimaeus shoots up like a rocket, guided by the gentle hands of the crowd. He has traded his only earthly security for an encounter with Jesus.
Now he stands before the Lord. “What do you want?” asks Jesus. The miracle isn’t going to happen without an explicit request – and it’s played out in front of an audience. The whole crowd hears Bartimaeus ask to be healed of his blindness – and Jesus obliges, with the words: “YOUR FAITH HAS SAVED YOU.” By faith, Bartimaeus cried out. By faith, Bartimaeus abandoned his cloak and came to Jesus. By faith, Bartimaeus put into words his heart’s desire to be healed. And now, by faith, Bartimaeus chooses to follow Jesus.
Two weeks ago, we heard a rich young man, someone important in the eyes of the world, being challenged to leave everything, and follow Jesus. He faltered. Today, a blind man, a worthless beggar in the eyes of his community, casts aside his security and follows Jesus on a road which will lead to Jerusalem and the Cross. St Mark wants us to hear both stories and draw our own conclusions.
But there is more that we can learn, especially as we begin this Year of Faith.
Faith comes by hearing. Someone told Bart about Jesus and his power to heal. We also must tell people about Jesus. The new saints, the miracle at Lourdes – these are stories worth telling!
Do we still believe that Jesus has power to heal? True, not every prayer is answered positively, not every sick Catholic is healed. But Bartimaeus had to ask for his healing, and at least part of the reason that we don’t see more healings in our community is that we do not ask persistently and specifically in prayer. It is right that we have a list of names in our bidding prayers which we commend to God. But the prayer of faith is strongest when the sufferer or their close family make a pilgrimage, or call upon their priest and members of their community to come to pray alongide them, saying: “Lord, that I may see! That I may walk! That I may be cured!” – and not as a one-off, but as a persistent knock on heaven’s door.
We don’t do faith alone. True faith requires trust in God and trust in members of the community. Bartimaeus trusted the crowd to lead him in the right direction, and he had enough confidence in Christ to cast aside his security blanket. At the recent Paralympics, we saw how blind athletes worked with guide runners and bicycle pilots so that both could achieve medals. Blind swimmers placed huge trust in their tappers, assistants with long poles who tap them on the shoulders near the end of the pool so they can swim at full pelt until warned of the wall where they need to turn round.
Blind Bartimaeus could see something the crowd could not: he could see that Jesus was the true Messiah, the long-awaited Son of David, the One in whom he could place all his trust. Through Bartimaeus, the whole crowd learns something about who Jesus is. And in a way, Bartimaeus becomes a tapper for this crowd: though sighted, they need to be warned to slow down and turn around their lives. From their froth of excitement, they slow down to watch the spotlight fall on Bart’s encounter with Jesus. Those willing to see what is really happening notice that Bartimeus’s healing required courage and an openness to following Jesus. Bartimaeus has turned around and become Christ’s follower – will the crowd do the same?
Our Lord does not promise us a life free of suffering; he is the great high priest who has endured the same trials as ourselves. The new saints suffered martyrdom – among them the Filipino Pedro Calungsod – or toiled among the sick – Sr Marianne Cope among lepers in Hawai’i. But we should expect answers to prayer often enough to keep on asking with the persistence of a Bartimaeus.
So let’s make the right connection! Let us pray with persistence, with expectation, and above all, with other members of our community. The more we pray, the more answered prayer we will experience, and we will have own personal reasons to proclaim: “What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad!”