During last week’s Masses we heard the story of the apostle Thomas, whom we might recall as an early religious skeptic. When the other apostles joyfully inform him that they have seen the risen Jesus, he shakes his head, obstinately affirming that until he can touch Jesus’ wounds, he will not believe. When Jesus reappears, he grants Thomas his wish, but nevertheless responds with a certain amount of reproach: ¨Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed¨ (John 20:29).
Since that time, many have echoed that reproach, seeing Thomas as lacking a deep faith. Others, however, have defended him. His doubt is based on a deep desire to know the truth. The testimonies of others, even his closest friends, are not enough for him. He needs to experience reality for himself, to place his fingers in Jesus’ hands and side. Thomas, in his stubborn insistence on empiricism, sets the stage for what would become central to Catholic Christian dogma: that we should be led to God not by faith, but by reason as well.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, faith is a constant struggle for me, and it is often clashes with reason. One reason for this conflict may have to do with the social environment I inhabit. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has astutely observed, those of us who live in those countries usually termed ¨The West¨ now live in a ¨secular age,¨ whose genesis he discusses in a nearly thousand-page tome of the same title. In the book (which is beautifully written and definitely worth reading), Taylor seeks to answer a question: why is it that in the year 1500, it was virtually impossible for most Europeans not to believe in God in Western societies, while in 2000 there are many options for belief, with unbelief often forming the default? What exactly happened in those five hundred years? The answer is complicated, by Taylor locates much of it in the growing tendency toward individualism which began with the Protestant Reformation and has intensified ever since, culminating in a postmodern era where the very concept of truth is itself often called into question.
We now live in an age where, across many countries, religious belief and practice appear to be in decline. ¨None¨ is the fastest-growing religious affiliation in the US; in most churches I visit, people in my age group (20s and 30s) are a marked minority. However, we are also secular in the sense that for most of us, religion is a private rather than a public matter. Outdoor religious processions, common in places like Nicaragua, are rare in the US and Canada. If you meet someone at a cocktail party, it is considered perfectly normal to ask them about their method of earning an income (perhaps as a way of gauging their social status) but not to ask them about their religious beliefs (considered too personal, too private to disclose to a stranger).
With this reality in mind, I am constantly asking myself how we who still identify as believers in God, should respond to the complex, rapidly changing world. After all, taken at the literal level, we believe in some pretty wacky things. That a man could die and miraculously rise from the dead…that his incarnate body is present in the host we consume at Mass…that he will return at the end of time to judge the living and the dead…it’s a pretty strange belief system.
Or has he? Indeed, during these two thousand years, many people have come forward claiming to be the returned Christ. Some of them were burned as witches; today, most of them are be quickly shuttled to the psychiatric ward and injected with a heavy dose of Risperidone. Could it be that Christ has actually come into the world many times, only to be persecuted or dismissed as he was when he first preached his good news in Galilee two thousand years ago? Could it be that, again and again, he has been condemned for his beliefs, labeled a dangerous revolutionary and executed by the state? I sometimes think so.
On Good Friday I had the opportunity to participate in an outdoor Way of the Cross in my hometown. Written by local members of the Catholic Worker movement, the stations involved stops at various sites of oppression and injustice: a gun shop, where we prayed for those affected by gun violence; a pornography shop, where we remembered all those degraded by the sex industry, including victims of human trafficking; the railroad tracks, where we recalled ecological degradation, particularly in the form of fracking. However, we also stopped at sites of mercy and justice: a crisis pregnancy center, where women facing unplanned pregnancies are given resources to prepare for their future; a parish rectory where undocumented migrants receive legal aid, and the local Catholic Worker house, where food, fellowship and shelter are offered to those who need it most.
At the end of the Stations, I truly felt that, like Thomas, I had put my hands in Jesus’ wounds. The Crucifixion seemed not like a distant event many years ago, but an ongoing reality that continues to this day. However, the Resurrection seemed just as real, embodied in those fighting for the dignity of all life and the stewardship of the earth. And perhaps this is why, when I completed the Triduum journey on Easter Sunday, the presence of the risen Jesus seemed truly real. Even now, in this era of mass extinctions, constant war, and widespread hatred. Especially now.
The Paschal Mystery is just that: a conundrum beyond our understanding. There is so much we cannot grasp. We cannot know with certainty when Christ will return, or how we will recognize him, or (as I would argue) if he has indeed returned many times, without us recognizing him. However, there is a lot that we can indeed understand. In many ways, the message of Jesus is quite simple. We are called to work for justice, to love one another, to show mercy. In an atomized world where loneliness is rampant, the Eucharist reminds us that we are indeed profoundly united. And though we wait for a future coming in glory, for now, our role in the world is clear. We ourselves are the body of Christ. For me, this is truly a reason for Easter rejoicing.