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Personage or person?

Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, once noted the important distinction between a personage and a person - especially as regards Jesus Christ. A "personage" (granted, an uncommon word) is an important figure, someone we might call "larger than life." We have heard about the person, read about him and perhaps even seen him. But we do not know him. Indeed, a personage may be fictional, like Odysseus or Hester Prynne. Now, we might admire and draw inspiration from a personage. But we do not have a relationship with him. You may know about George Washington and admire him greatly. But if you speak to him daily … then there's a problem.

A person, on the other hand, is someone with whom we have a relationship. We do not merely know about a person, we know the person directly. And, yes, we can speak to that person daily.

So the question arises: Is Jesus Christ a personage or a person? Unfortunately, for most people He remains just a personage. They have heard about Him, perhaps know a great deal about Him … but they do not know Him directly. They have not made the transition from knowing about Him as a personage to knowing Him as a person.

Two Gospel figures teach us how to make this transition: Jairus, the synagogue official, and the woman afflicted with hemorrhages (cf. Mk 5:21-43). They both demonstrate the means and the price of knowing Jesus. Both certainly had heard about Jesus of Nazareth, because He was a celebrity. They had heard about His healings, His miracles and His teachings. Perhaps they had seen Him or listened to Him preach. Yet He remained just a personage, not yet a person to them.

In each case, a grave need prompts the person to seek out Jesus personally. Jairus approaches Him to heal his daughter, and the woman for her own healing. That already is a lesson for us: Our weakness is an occasion to know Jesus more intimately. Now, nobody likes to be needy. We usually want to be put together and perfect for Him (and that is not an entirely bad desire). But He comes to us and makes Himself known to us - as He did to Jairus and the woman - most of all in our time of need.

It follows, then, that to know Jesus requires humility. Jairus was a man of great authority in his town and probably not inclined to respect this upstart rabbi from backwater Nazareth. So it took humility for him to come before Jesus, to fall at His feet and plead earnestly before the entire crowd. Likewise, the woman with hemorrhages - probably known to the townspeople for her suffering - risks shame and embarrassment by seeking yet another means of healing.

Further, they both show that trust is needed in order to know Him - which is counterintuitive. We typically think that we must know before we can trust. "Seeing is believing," we wrongly say. The reverse is true: If we want to know Him, we must first trust Him. "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (Jn 20:29). For Jairus and the woman this meant trusting specifically that He could heal. But for all of us this means trusting in His word - that He is who He claims to be. If we do not trust Him, we will never know Him.

Unless we take Him at His word and, trusting that He is the Son of God, speak to Him in prayer and live according to His teachings, we will never come to know Him personally. But if we humbly set aside our pride, allow our need to draw us to Him and trust in His word, then indeed - like Jairus and the woman - we come to know Him, the person Jesus Christ.

Fr. Scalia is pastor of St. John the Beloved Parish in McLean.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012