Like the majority of Thanksgivings since I moved from the east coast to South Bend for grad school, I will be away from my family. In response to my absence, I will once again call home, be placed on speaker phone and passed around the table while I do my best to hear the person on the line. My initial plea, “No, not speaker phone,” is most often lost in the shuffle.
One Thanksgiving, most of my friends left South Bend to visit their families. At the beginning of the day I was feeling down about being in a strange place (that’s how I experienced the Midwest at the time) without familiar holiday traditions or company. But as the day unfolded, I realized my sorrows no longer occupied my attention. With the open holiday, I went to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for Mass, and ran along the river before joining the Catholic Worker community for their Thanksgiving dinner. At the Catholic Worker, families living in South Bend, a conglomerate of abandoned grad students including myself, and the Catholic Worker residents and staff feasted on a pot-luck meal, music, and conversation. That Thanksgiving was interspersed with moments of sorrow for the absence of such a banquet with my family in Connecticut, but also marked with gratitude for unexpected hospitality and initial ingredients for friendship.
As I recall stories from holidays spent near and far from my family, I imagine Jesus traveling to Jerusalem before the Feast of the Jews and I wonder how he experienced his people’s religious celebrations. Scripture scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ notes, “The celebration of a Jewish feast is called a zikkārōn . . . a memory that recalls God’s active presence to the Jewish people in the past, rendering present in the liturgical celebration of the feasts” (The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina, 164). Jesus participated in the feasts of his religion. He also decided to heal the long-suffering man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath during his travel to the feast. Jesus’ healing on this Sabbath was not a discrete suggestion to dismiss God’s law (see Matthew 5:17). Rather, with the power of God, Jesus renders present God’s saving power. Jesus’ healing is at the heart of what his people strive to celebrate.
Without Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool in Bethesda, he would have been alienated and isolated from his people. He would not have been able to participate in the Jewish feasts at all. Jesus, by healing him, makes God’s saving power present, and therefore, makes true celebration possible for him, perhaps for the first time in a long time. If we allow Jesus to heal us of our great (and often heavy) holiday expectations, he can help us to celebrate more fruitfully, whether we're with our families or far from home.