Thus says the Lord: Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create; for I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and exult in my people.
“Go home,” said Jesus, “your son will live.” The man believed what Jesus had said and started on his way; and while he was still on the journey back his servant met him with the news that his boy was alive.
For the believer, creation is personal. Although mysterious, life is not random and chaotic but rather ordered and lovingly designed and willed. To live in faith, hope, and love is to trust in the beneficence of God and creation and so to remain responsible to and for life, however inscrutable life and the world’s affairs seem to us.
Such a stance is evident in the Royal Official in today’s gospel who, hearing the word of Jesus, “believed what Jesus had said and started on his way.” He had asked Jesus to come down with him to his son to touch and so to heal him, but Jesus merely told him that his son would live. The way of the Official is very much like our way. We have God’s promise, but we have no outward signs or proof. We live and we act by faith, and not by sight.
The difficulty of faith is focused for us today in the reading from Isaiah. The Lord promises a new creation in which there will always be happiness and rejoicing. It is to be a world which is a joy and whose people are a delight. Does the truth of the Lord’s promise suggest a kind of utopianism that believes that the world as we know it is evolving toward such a state? Is faith the kind of optimism that believes, whatever the evidence to the contrary, that all is working out for the best? To be meaningful must God’s promises point to an ideal physical state in our personal afterlife or even in a new creation beyond this one? Is our faith an optimism that everything will always work out in the end?
As the man, having received the word of Jesus, goes “on his way,” it is quite easy to believe that he does so in trust but also in doubt. It is very possible that Jesus, not having the time to accompany him back to his son, was just brushing him off with false encouragement. Don’t we who try to believe often do exactly that when someone who is suffering comes to us? How often we want to respond to them, on the one hand, but also move beyond them on the other. Their suffering disturbs us, so we want them to feel better in order to rescue ourselves from our sense of fear, doubt, and incompetence. Too often in our presence to others (what we often call ministry) we offer a baseless optimism rather than remaining with the other in the darkness of faith.
God’s promise is not for a future utopia, nor does it ask of us a blind optimism. It is a present reality which we can only come to receive and to know as we empty ourselves of our own own notions, demands, and projects. Jan van Ruusbroec writes: “God’s activity in the emptiness of our soul is eternal.” When we become empty of all our own activity, we can then realize God’s eternal activity in our soul. As Jesus tells us in John’s gospel (John 5:17), God is always working. For the most part, however, that work is hidden from us. It is so different from the work that we are usually involved in that we are usually unable to recognize it. St. Francis of Assisi comes to the realization that everything that is part of creation is brother and sister to him. The new heaven and the new earth is already here. The joy of creation and the delight of all persons is our life now, even in the midst of what to us is pain, suffering, and death. Francis comes to know this truth by a life of “the highest poverty.”
To live in faith in God’s promise requires that we empty ourselves of our pursuit of utopia in order to, as Jesus did, do the work God gives us to do. Faith is not faith in a certain imagined outcome or in a desired ultimate reward. it is rather to continue “on our way,” trusting, as Russbroec teaches, that “We thus possess a living life, which has been in God from all eternity, before anything was created.” This is what the gospel calls “eternal life.” It is the life that knows joy and delight, as St. Francis realized, in living from our true place and the relationship of brother and sister to all of creation.
This union which we have with God is above reason and the senses. In it we are united with God in one spirit and one life. No one can perceive, find, or possess this life unless through love and God’s grace he has died to himself in the living life, been baptized in the spring, and been born again of God’s Spirit in divine freedom. He will then always remain dwelling in God, united with God in the living life and, through the richness and fullness of his love, will always be renewed and flow out with God’s grace in every virtue. This is an eternal and heavenly way of life, born of the Holy Spirit and always renewed in love between God and ourselves. God’s activity in the emptiness of our soul is eternal. We all have an eternal life with the Son in the Father; the same life flows forth and is begotten with the Son from the Father; and the Father, with the Son, has eternally known and loved this life in the Holy Spirit. We thus possess a living life, which has been in God from all eternity, before anything was created.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III,A