Many of us remember a time, long ago, before you could watch any movie you wanted any time you want. Back in those olden days, there were certain movies that came on television only once a year, and so it was a big deal whenever these movies were broadcast. One of my family’s favorites was always The Wizard of Oz, which was broadcast once a year from 1959 to 1991. We almost never missed watching it together when I was a boy.
I presume nobody needs a reminder of the plot of The Wizard of Oz. I will only highlight that Dorothy and her friends spend most of the movie traveling long distances and overcoming lots of challenges in order to present their needs to the Wizard of Oz and to ask for his help. They did all of this despite the fact that they knew next to nothing about the Wizard and had never seen him themselves.
One of the most dramatic moments in the movie comes when they finally meet the Wizard, and he turns out to be far less impressive and powerful than they had been led to believe. In fact, the only way he can help them is by turning their needs into metaphors and giving them token gifts and little motivational speeches.
Often, our approach to prayer is just the opposite of what’s going on in The Wizard of Oz. Rather than doing much, and expecting much, only to be let down, we often do little, and expect little when we bring our needs to Jesus. And unlike the Wizard, who turns out to be a pretty big disappointment, Jesus is far greater, and can do far more, than anything we can imagine.
In the movie, the appearance of the Wizard is deceiving because the initial image of an intimidating, supernatural being that confronts Dorothy and her friends turns out to be nothing more than a projection operated by an ordinary middle-aged man.
Again, we’re dealing with just the opposite when it comes to Jesus. Though He appears to us as a man — He truly is a man — Jesus is also the Son of God. He is infinitely greater than His appearance indicates.
The same is true of the Holy Eucharist, in which Jesus comes to us under the even more humble appearances of bread and wine. What we see with Jesus is not what we get. What we get is much, much more powerful than what we see!
What is the key to seeing Who Jesus really is? Only faith gives us the “eyes” to penetrate the humble appearances under which Jesus comes to us, so that we can see beyond what our senses can detect. We need to have the faith of the leper in this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1:40-45), who sees in Jesus Someone with the supernatural power to heal him. Notice that in Sunday’s first reading (Leviticus 13:1-2; 44-46), the Lord gives a law that helps Israel to cope with leprosy, but it is a rare thing for anyone to be cured of leprosy in the Old Testament. Only twice does this happen, to Aaron’s wife Miriam in Numbers 12 and to Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5. But Jesus came to establish a new covenantal relationship between God and His people, and one of the signs of this new covenant is miraculous healing.
The problem is that although we know we can bring our needs to God, sometimes we place artificial limits on what God can do in our lives. How do we do this?
- First, people often say that “God has more important things to worry about than my problems.” That is almost certainly true, in a certain sense, but God knows everything and is all-powerful. He is not like an overworked clerk at the Secretary of State’s office, asking you to take number 87 while he’s currently serving customer number 15. Jesus tells us over and over again to ask for the help we need, and He means it. He assures us that whenever we ask in His name for God’s help, God will help us.
- Second, we can have a tendency to write off God’s power to help us by thinking only that “God works in mysterious ways” or that “God wants me to suffer” or by taking what I might call the “Publisher’s Clearinghouse” approach to God’s power. Perhaps you remember the old Publisher’s Clearinghouse commercial jingle: “Miracles can happen, can happen for you. Publisher’s Clearinghouse, the house where dreams come true.” Sounds nice, but not too many people really think that kind of “miracle” — winning millions of dollars — is going to happen for them. Don’t we often look at God’s power to perform miracles the same way? Yes, God does work in mysterious ways. Yes, we do believe in the power of suffering in union with Jesus. Yes, it is true that miracles won’t always happen for us. But God always has the power to act in our lives, and we can be sure He will do what is best for us. Maybe what is best for us in a certain situation is God’s help in dealing with our suffering gracefully. But it might be that granting what we pray for in a very literal, perhaps even miraculous way is really what is best for us. In any case, we need to pray with living faith, expecting God to act powerfully when we call upon Him.
- Finally, there is a funny way that even very devout Catholics can simply forget to ask God explicitly for what they need. Say you’re having a very difficult time forgiving someone who’s hurt you. You work and work at it, get frustrated over and over again by your failures to forgive, and you end up confessing the same sin every time you go to confession. Sometimes a person in this situation fails because he or she is trying to go it alone, without simply asking God for help! Sometimes, it’s the simplest thing in the world that we forget to do. I know I’ve done this. I’ve forgotten simply to ask God in prayer for the grace I need to heal a particular wound or overcome a particular problem.
Every time we come to Mass, we have the most powerful opportunity we will ever have to offer our intentions to God, to ask for His help. I’m not only talking about the Prayers of the Faithful, although those are obviously important. Each of us has an opportunity to place our needs on the altar, along with the bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Jesus, asking God to hear our prayers and to give us the help we need. May we never miss a chance to ask God for His help and mercy, and may we always approach Him with great faith — knowing that He loves us, trusting in His power, and remembering that He longs to give us what will help us the most. He especially longs to give us what will most help us to get to heaven and live with Him forever.
Fr. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.