You may have heard that the members of ABBA, the pop group so dominant in the 1970s, have reformed to produce a new ‘album’ of songs to be released in November; and that next year they will perform a series of concerts in which digitally rejuvenated versions of themselves will perform on stage. The ability to do this is just one of many technological innovations in the music industry.

One of the major social changes brought on by innovative technology in recent years is how people can communicate with each other now without ever meeting them, just as ABBA can perform on stage without being physically present in the concert arena. So we can have ‘friends’ on Facebook or Instagram without them ever actually meeting each other face-to-face. And while many can boast about the number of digital ‘friends’ they can have on these platforms, or boast about the number of followers they have on Twitter, it’s just ‘connection at a distance’ – it is not the same as having a personal and real encounter with them.

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, compelled many of us to use this means of communicating for the first time. How would many of us have coped without Zoom in the past 18 months when we could not meet or touch family and friends?

However, while we can now meet people face-to-face once more, some of the substitute technological changes that helped us survive during the pandemic appear to be here to stay. For instance, while shops and restaurants no longer have to enforce social distancing and even nightclubs are open, just 57 per cent of GPs consultations with patients in July this year were held face-to-face – a little higher than the 47 per cent recorded at the start of the first lockdown last April, but still far below the levels prior to the pandemic. In January last year four in five consultations were held face-to-face and now it’s down to two in five no). (source: The Spectator 4 September 2021). Is this to be the norm from now on and, if so, is it a good thing?

We know from experience that it is not until we meet a person face to face that we discover who and how they truly are. We can have strong feelings about people we have never met because of their religion, race, sexuality or gender but it’s only when we actually meet them in person that we can get to know them, appreciate their struggles and discover their true selves previously obscured by the labels applied to them. 

The meeting that takes place in today’s Gospel between Jesus and a pagan man who had impaired speech or hearing is one involving a personal, face-to-face encounter. Jesus could have responded to the request by the man’s friends by simply issuing a word or command from a distance for the man to be healed. After all, he’d only been asked to lay a hand upon him. However, Jesus went beyond this by taking the man aside, away from the crowd, and, in a private one-to-one encounter, put his fingers into the man’s ears and touched his tongue with saliva. 

This was an extraordinary thing for Jesus to do and not just because saliva was used. In those days saliva was believed to possess healing properties. Greek and Jewish healers were familiar with using saliva in their healing rituals. No, what was extraordinary was the intense personal and intimate nature of the meeting between these two people; so too the attention Jesus gave to the man’s condition, his respect for the person’s privacy, and the divine power with which he touched and healed the person. For this un-named man, this personal encounter transformed his life. This is why and how he came to believe in Jesus.

If we have never had a personal encounter with a person, we cannot know them and they cannot know us. No amount of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Zoom can achieve this. And if we have not had a personal encounter of sorts with Jesus, then it is difficult for us to know him or feel known and loved by him. It’s my guess that many of us who are cradle Catholics may never have had such an experience. We may believe in God and do our best every day to follow the teaching of Jesus. But to have an ‘encounter’ with him that transformed our lives, as it transformed the life of the deaf mute, that is something else!

Pope Francis has called our attention to the need for this kind of relationship with Jesus:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. ~ Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 3

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
5 September 2021

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