Friday, April 25, 2014

Homily: Low Sunday: 2014

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

With no plans to retire, I have nonetheless thought a bit about what I might do, when I do retire. I think that I would like to be a debate coach for atheists and skeptics. It is not that I am so smart; it’s that their arguments are so awful. It used to be that religious belief had classier opponents. But these days mostly they argue that belief in God and in particular the Christian belief in God is mean.  Or they argue that Christianity is just a mental illness. Or nobody really believes in God anymore because science has refuted it. All of which is really beside the point and simply a matter of trying to change the subject.

My first advice to critics of theism would be that they need to concentrate on the real Achilles heel of Christianity, which is faith, at least faith as many Christians seem to understand it. 

It is beyond dispute that Faith, not anything else, is the definition of a Christian. It all begins with the Blessed Virgin putting her faith in the words of an angel and her cousin Elizabeth greeting the Mother of Jesus ‘blessed are you for your believing’. Quite frankly Jesus was more interested, especially in the St. John’s Gospel, in people believing in him than he was in getting them to behave themselves. Faith for Jesus is a matter of life and death: “whoever believes in me will never die.” St. Paul is forever talking about faith and little else.  So it is when Christians try to defend their religion they almost invariably say to the critic: ‘your problem is that you do not believe.’ That begs the question. It is like saying once you are convinced of my position you will be convinced of my position.

The really interesting thing is that often  Christians and their detractors agree on what faith is: both sides think that faith is a matter of living in Wonderland.

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said 'one can't believe impossible things.' 'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast’.

(Lewis Carroll, whose baptismal name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, logician, mathematician and Anglican clergyman of rather high church sympathies, knew perfectly well that Wonderland was a figment of his imagination but feared that others did not.)

But in the Gospel this Sunday St. Thomas boldly says: “I will not believe”. As St. Gregory the Great comments: “our faith owes more to the faithlessness of Thomas than to the faithfulness of all the other apostles put together”.

What are we to make of that? Just this: Faith is not just something we need to fill in the gaps, to allow us to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Christians are not especially gullible folks who will believe any bit of nonsense because we have faith. Faith is a gift which fortifies us in holding fast to a belief we know to be true.

We are prepared to proclaim the truth of the Resurrection, not because it is a happy ending to a tale that had taken a rather nasty turn, because we would like it to be true, because it makes us feel better, but because from a multitude of converging evidence it is a plain fact, a piece of  ascertainable history.

The truth is there is as much evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus as there is for any other historical event in the 1st century Roman Empire. A good deal more evidence in fact than there is for many other widely accepted historical details from that era and place. Part of that evidence is Thomas himself and his distrust of the report he got from the other apostles. What would be really surprising is if no one had said “wait a moment! I want proof.”

Not only that.  St. Thomas’ insistence on physical proof rules some things out. This is not a ghost story; it is not a mystical experience,  a dream or a vision; it is not a fairy tale for the very simple reason that, as everyone who has read a fairy tale knows, fairy tales do not have to deal with the problem of whether fairy godmothers and golden apples are real or not. No one stands up in a fairy tale and demands evidence that unicorns exist. But the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection look this question squarely in the eye.

But still Thomas does not get off lightly. Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. For our sakes, it was a good thing that Thomas doubted but for himself it was a missed opportunity. He had evidence already. He was an eyewitness to the whole of the Lord’s life and teaching. He should have known better and it would have been better for his soul, if had trusted his friends’ report. The matter at hand was not evidence or no evidence. He had evidence; it just ddi not care much for it.

But Jesus does not complain: he does not say “I told you so.” Instead he looks ahead to future centuries, to people like you and me, who have none of the advantages of Thomas and yet manage to say “My Lord and my God.” From a spiritual standpoint we are the lucky ones, luckier than Thomas, because he saw.

The world around us is increasingly hostile to the Christian Religion, either because they cannot imagine a supernatural end for man, something beyond this valle of tears or  because they have gone after other things or other gods.  It does not the least good to complain about it. Especially since in  us as well there is the continual revolt against the claims God makes on our lives. If only we could see some dramatic divine intervention, we imagine, some startling answer to our prayers, never mind over two thousand years of ordinary Christian fidelity, of heroic sanctity, of steady and trustworthy witness, we think we really need to see it for ourselves. But Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and believe".

Much indebted to Msgr. Knox.

believe all the same.”

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