Doubt and faith
April 12th, 2016
By Sister Joan L. Roccasalvo, CSJ
Last week, The New York Times published an article titled “God Is a Question, Not an Answer.” Its author William Irwin asks if we should avoid claiming with certainty whether or not God exists. And what of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
The Gospel narratives record at least seven instances of disbelief in the Lord’s resurrection. The words were spoken not by outright disbelievers but by most of the Eleven. On returning from the empty tomb, the women couldn’t wait to announce the good news to them. But the Eleven didn’t, or wouldn’t, believe the women. “Idle chatter,” they called it.
In the Johannine Gospel, when people walked away from Jesus, it was over the issue of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He asked the disciples if they too would leave him. Of course not. “Lord,” they answered, “to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” Their belief was short-lived.
Disbelief of Peter, Thomas, and others
On the first day of that week, on finding only linen cloths at the tomb, Peter went home wondering what happened to the body. Wondering what?
Then there was Thomas. You can almost hear his impertinence, “I will not believe unless I can see the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side.” Only then would he condescend to believe. Jesus didn’t reprove Thomas but engaged him. Once Thomas professed his belief, he personified all those who, through the centuries, have not believed. His acclamation, “my Lord and my God,” has become a common confession of faith for those who have moved from doubt to the certainty of faith. For them, it is as though two plus two equal four and not five.
The two disciples at Emmaus had just about given up on the Lord’s promise and prediction of his resurrection. They had hoped as well …
You can understand the disciples’ doubt or anyone’s doubt for that matter about the resurrection of a mere person. Yet throughout his short ministry, Jesus foretold his resurrection. Didn’t they listen to him? Weren’t they the ones who had protested that he was the Christ and expected Messiah? Why were they so obtuse? For days, they were gripped by doubt, their vision, clouded.
The women at the tomb; Mary Magdalene
Not so with the women. Seeing the empty tomb, they were afraid, at least initially. Then, assured by the angel, they believed. There was no doubt about it. No need to rationalize, they hurried back to the Eleven with the joyful news.
It was a slightly different story with Mary Magdalene, a woman with much love to give. Yet, there was nothing gullible or naïve about her. Unlike Peter, she stayed behind at the tomb weeping, all the while trying to sort things out and attempting to unravel the mystery of the missing body. Distress aside, she was sleuthing around for any clue as to the Lord’s whereabouts. Little did she suspect how close he really was.
The scene unfolds: “Why are you weeping,” ask the angels at the empty tomb? Mary ignores their question but observes that “they” took away the body, whoever “they” are. She doesn’t know where they laid him implying that she ought to know.
Then a gardener appears and asks what she’s looking for. Assuming he has some information, she blurts out “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I’ll take him away.” She will look after the body? How? Such is the language of love that blurts out a protestation and solution, both unrealistic and impossible, before reasoning it out. Love knows no reason. Centuries later, Blaise Pascal would say: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
Only one week before, in an act of profligate love, Mary had poured out costly perfume on Jesus’ feet. “What a waste,” sneered Judas. But Jesus told Judas to his face that he needed human consolation before his passion and death.
The gardener of course is Jesus in disguise, and the encounter between them paints a lovely picture. Jesus calls out, “Mary.” The voice stills her. His intonation is filled with consolation. Her instinct is to touch him, but this cannot be. A new relationship now exists between them. She hurriedly goes to the disciples to announce what the Lord has done for her … not unlike Mary of Nazareth who had visited her cousin Elizabeth.
Do we wonder that Magdalene’s name has been placed at the head of the named women in the Gospels? She is the “apostle to the apostles” signaling her special place among them all. The Johannine encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene parallels the words of Isaiah 43:1:“Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.”
Contemplation as event
In prayer, try role playing and repeat what the disciples said in a cynical tone. Utter the harsh words, “I will not believe.” For a moment or two, it will align you with the thousands who refuse to believe in God, not to mention the Lord’s resurrection. Then, recreate this scene and listen for Jesus to call your name.
It may not be possible to share the news of the risen Christ in the way Magdalene did. But sensitivity to others brings possibilities that are perhaps more creative. The time may come when others, instead of finding in you an indifferent Catholic or a mere cultural Catholic, they will discover a disciple and companion of the Lord. For most of us, it means touching others quietly, without hesitation, and with a joyful faith.
You and I live in a world that often shouts the harsh words, “We will not believe.” You and I must pray, “Lord, we believe; help our unbelief” (Mark 9:24). The pearl of great price – our faith – is not difficult to lose.
From April 14, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.