Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter: Seeing, believing and not believing

The gospels of Eastertide all deal with faith, specifically Easter faith, but also faith in God and what that means and what it looks like.  Once again we make reference to the uniqueness of the post- Resurrection appearances of Christ, and their startling nature and the understanding on the part of each of the Gospel writers that words just cannot convey what happened, what the disciples saw.  It is as if words cannot bridge the reality of the resurrected Jesus.  And part of these appearances include Jesus’ upbraiding his disciples for their lack of faith, for their initial refusal to see what is really there:  “I am no ghost.  Look at my hands and my side.”  From Matthew’s Gospel: “But later, as the eleven were at table, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief.”  And from Luke on the road to Emmaus: “ Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe..!”

This has to make us ponder, this has to make us ask the question:  what is faith in the resurrected Christ, and how does one get to the point of faith in Him?  And going further with this question, we surely come to the question of belief in God, what is its nature, what does it involve with regard to the individual person.  We know the old adage: seeing is believing.  Well, obviously the disciples and Mary Magdalene did not equate seeing with believing, at least in the synoptic Gospels.  But that is why these appearances of the risen Lord seem so odd to us, a bit, forgive the term, sketchy, not clear, something that leaves us wanting something more.  We could say that the disciples were not that smart and so they had a hard time getting things.  But this is not a matter of intelligence. This is a matter of seeing and not believing.  And that doubt persists right up to the Ascension:  at the end of Matthew’s Gospel we read:  “When they saw him they worshiped him but they doubted."

We see the answer to these quasi-paradoxical statements and events when we remember John’s words when Peter and John on Easter morning look into the empty tomb:  “He saw and he believed.”  So is this a positive case of seeing and believing as opposed to the negative cases we alluded to earlier?  No.  Because they did not see the risen Lord in that tomb.  They saw the burial shroud neatly folded and placed on the stone, and they saw the tomb empty and no body.  They saw and they believed.  And here we have the essence of faith in the risen Lord. It cannot depend on appearances and visions. For if that were true, we could not believe.  Faith in Christ is not the result of a special communication, or a special spiritual event in one’s live.  Faith is believing in things visible and invisible as the Creed says.  Faith is a decision to believe, after one has considered the evidence that is there.

 People talk about a leap of faith.  I have always found that romantic and misleading.  The decision to believe must be based on a rational examination of the evidence, in whatever form that evidence takes. The evidence leading to faith is always incomplete.  But one sees enough of the pattern, one sees enough of meaning, and this “enough” is the basis of the decision to believe.  So faith always accepts that darkness and obscurity is part of belief .  Faith certainly involves a decision that is grounded in the will.  Faith can never be general. It can never be written down and put into a book like a catechism.  The theological content of faith is not faith.  It is always the individual who wills to believe and this not merely the content of faith but for the Catholic always involves the will to believe in the Church and ultimately in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world.  And to believe in Christ is to believe in the One who sent him.  Again that verse from John:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”  And this brings us to the heart of the matter.  To talk about faith as an act of the will is accurate. But it is not at all like scrunching up yourself and saying:  "I will believe, I will believe."  It is not like Dorothy closing her eyes and clicking her red shoes and believing she can get back to Kansas.

Again, we come back to that scene in John’s gospel with Peter and John at the tomb.  He saw and believed, because he loved.  John loved Jesus and when faced with the evidence of the empty tomb he believed. He believed because he loved.  In the end it is love that makes faith possible.  No one can believe in God if he does not love God.  That is why so many people, intelligent, rational people, don’t believe in God, at least not in a real way that has any influence on their lives.  Because they do not love him.  Many Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And, despite knowing the teaching of the Church and why that is the teaching, they do not believe, because they do not love the Church and they do not love Christ’s Body and Blood. 

But we cannot end our examination of faith without talking a bit about the problem of credulity.  This consists of believing all sorts of things because of emotional responses to events and phenomena that are seen as somehow religious.  There are Catholics who run around to places whenever there is a rumor that the Blessed Mother appeared to someone in Queens or Tuscaloosa.  Those who get excited about seeing the face of Jesus in a pattern on a tree stump, or those who equate overflowing emotion with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  There are those who put such emphasis on scapulars and medals—all good things, of course--that religious “stuff” becomes the focus of their lives instead of the person of Jesus Christ.  I even heard of some people in a parish who were circulating a photograph that showed what looked like a nimbus of light surrounding the host at the elevation by a priest and were offering this as evidence of a miracle, when in fact what looked like a nimbus was actually the glare picked up by photographing a photograph on display on a bulletin board.  This is the opposite of faith, for all this sort of thing is not content with seeing the empty tomb and believing. No.  They have to see some miraculous glow or hear voices or smell the scent of roses.  Of course God can grant a special grace to a person that lays open the invisible and the unknowable as a true religious experience.  Look at St. Paul, at St Augustine and his mother St Monica.  But these experiences are not what faith is based on.  When one of St Teresa of Avila’s nuns came to her and told her that she had had an ecstatic vision, that wonderfully grounded woman, who certainly had her share of ecstasy, told the nun sharply that this may be from the devil, and if it is from God she should keep it to herself and maybe tell her confessor.

Oh, what a gift from God is our Catholic faith!  May we deepen that faith by a constant strengthening of our will to believe, and may we never forget that we can believe only if we love and this is possible only because God loved us first.