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The Emtpy Tomb

The Empty Tomb – Brother Sylvain, Taize Community

Count me among the Catholic Christians who always felt challenged by the central tenet of our faith – that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. I was always able to justify many of my Catholic beliefs by focusing mostly on the Gospel message of forgiveness, love, and the truth of a God that lives forever.

But the Easter celebration, physically rising from the dead? I never said it aloud, but deep inside there was a voice that muttered ‘did that really happen?’.

To a large extent, my reservations were many of the same as those mentioned in the commentary by James Martin, SJ in the Wall Street Journal:

“Recent years have seen a tendency to water down the Resurrection. A popular tack in preaching and in contemporary books on Jesus is the ‘shared memory’ thesis. That is, the experience of the disciples after Jesus’s death was not about actual ‘appearances’ as about ‘shared memory.’”

“…In this view, the real ‘resurrection’ came after the disciples remembered and discussed what Jesus meant to them during his time on earth. Revivified by this ‘shared memory,’ the disciples were emboldened to spread the Gospel. In this way Jesus was now ‘alive’ among them. He didn’t need to rise physically from the dead; he lives in their shared memory and commitment to continue his work.”

Fr. Martin continues to explore some of the other criticisms or revisionist views of the gospel that work to erode the foundations of modern belief – that miracles really didn’t happen and, essentially, that the apostles decided to continue Christ’s work simply because He was a really nice guy.

That is the way of our times –  to use our need to understand everything by projecting alternative events that explain why people said what they said and did what they did two millennia in the past. Everything that has happened must have an explanation that can be believed.

Which leads to the question for today’s faithful wanna-bees – how can a modern person place religious faith in what seems unbelievable?

It doesn’t seem reasonable.

But it surprises some to know that the doctors of the Church and her teachings strongly argue that faith and reason are both required in response to God’s call:

  • Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 Encyclical “Faith and Reason” argues that faith without reason “runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition…. the parrhesia [confident speech] of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason.”
  • Thomas Aquinas saw faith and reason as two compatible disciplines – reason being what logic leads us to conclude by what we sense and experience while the object of faith is that which is absent from our understanding. Aquinas believed that reason provided our free will with a compass, a direction that leads us to faith.
  • St. Augustine also emphasized the need for reason to provide the questioning framework that leads to a closer understanding of God’s presence – he referred to reason as the ability to know and understand the true meaning of faith – you can’t have faith unless reason informs you of its meaning.

It becomes apparent that our Church wants us to think before we say we believe, otherwise our words become mere recitations.

Which brings me back to thinking about the Resurrection and what it means to me as a Catholic Christian. Fr. Martin’s posting strongly dismisses the ‘watered down’ version of the Resurrection as not being credible, given its affect on Jesus’ followers and the resulting beliefs followed by billions.

But he is a Jesuit priest and I’m a Polish guy from Buffalo. What am I to make of the Resurrection?

We live in a world that wants to dismiss anything that can’t be explained as something that didn’t happen. I need to know why I too can ignore the arguments that my faith is built on the tale-telling traditions of the era and that my Church’s success was due to some quirk of history and the fall of the Roman Empire.

My nature is to understand what I believe – what do I do with this story of an empty tomb and a Christ who rises from the dead and appears only to those who believe?

I can start with reason.

Reason tells me that what happened 2,000 years ago was far more powerful and impactful than anything that happened previously. Yes there were the practices of ‘making up’ gods and miracles – but something had to be different here. The ‘god-making’ practices of antiquity may have provided a framework of daily ritual, but none inspired, none survived, and few can think of the names of anyone who willingly gave his or her life for a Roman god.

And reason tells me that something distinctive and unique happened to the apostles, something that turned a room full of terrified men, men who had nothing to gain by carrying on Christ’s ministry (and literally everything to lose), into a team of global missionaries, most of whom gave their lives for what they believed.

Reason tells me that people don’t give up their lives for a lie; people don’t choose death to defend  ‘a good idea.’ Reason tells me that something more powerful happened there, something transformational.

Reason, the application of logic to what I know and experience, also tells me that the Resurrection continues. I myself have tried to live without belief in things unseen, only to understand that such a choice left me trying to live a life without that compass that St. Thomas talked about 800 years ago.

I have seen the miracles that happen when lives broken by alcoholism, drug abuse, loneliness any any other named infirmity are made anew when the sick turn to the Source, the one Truth, to God, for help.

Reason, the ability to use logic to explain what I have seen, experienced, and learned, tells me that faith in God’s love brings the dead back to life.

We don’t know what the apostles and the women of Jesus’ life experienced. The gospels said they saw, they heard and they touched a risen Christ. They experienced and lived through the events that will occur only once in the course of human history. Most died for what they believed in. Their examples inspired first thousands, then millions to do the same. Who are we to dismiss their witness as lies or exaggeration?

Two thousand years ago, a tomb was found empty. Terrified men and women were given courage. Gods of temples and themes were replaced by the Truth and the Way. And the law of ritual gave way to a law of service. That is what happened, that is history.

So when it comes the Easter and the Resurrection, I have reason to believe.


Sources:
http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/04/18/celebrating-easter-why-a-watered-down-resurrection-doesnt-work/

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html

Auquinas 101 – A Basic Introduction fo the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Francis Selman, Christian Classics, Notre Dame, Indiana

http://www.strangenotions.com/augustine-faith/

 

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MonAve10k

2014 Monument Avenue 10K – Source: Chris Conway / Richmond Times Dispatch

Each year in late March, Richmond’s Monument Avenue is the venue for the nation’s fourth largest 10K race (according to Active.com). Some 36,000 runners crowd the streets near Virginia Commonwealth University to run an out-and-back course through one of Richmond’s crowning jewel neighborhoods.

The course is a median divided urban parkway spanned by splendid apartment buildings, churches, and private residences, most of which were built during the 1900-1925 timeframe.

It is easily the premier running event in central Virginia, with the median filled with bands, church groups, and civic organizations – all lending some form of nutritional or emotional support. The Sacred Heart Cathedral, seat of the Richmond Diocese, even hosts a blessing of the runners before the start.

I’ve run several Monument 10Ks – but this year was a particular struggle to step into the morning darkness… and drizzle. Nonetheless, this is one event you don’t miss (kind of like going to Mass on Easter) — so there I was, standing with the ‘SC’ wave, scheduled to cross the start line some 30 minutes after the elite runners had sprinted away into the mist.

You get a chance to think of a lot of things while standing in the rain, looking at thousands of your closest friends as they get ready for their start — naturally I thought of how similar running a 10K was to my Catholic faith experience.

I grant you that the parallels may not be immediately apparent to the outsider, but as we finally got moving and passed the timing sensors at the start, as we made our way past the noisy, cheering crowds, and as we sloshed through the puddles along the 6.2 miles – the analogy grew more pronounced….

 

This is for everyone.

The Monument 10K draws runners and joggers of all (and I do mean all) abilities, shapes, sizes and ages. You could also tell by the variety in T-shirt slogans that the entire political spectrum was represented. All that matters to those running was… the running.

In Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce suggests that the Catholic Church can be described as “Here comes everybody.” The past tradition of our church has been to welcome all to the fold, acknowledging that we all fall short in some way. Each member of the flock has been shaped by experiences very different from all others – difference should never mean disqualification.  All that should matter to those who seek the truth of the gospel is…. finding the truth in the gospel.

 

It doesn’t matter when you start.

The field for the Monument Ave. 10K is so large that it takes an hour and a half for all the ‘waves’ to start. The waves are based on projected running pace (so those running a 10 minute mile don’t get trampled by the 7 minute/mile herd).

Of course, for an event like this, once you acknowledge that you aren’t really in the ‘elite’ category of runners, the starting point really doesn’t matter. Your times are kept individually, so your ‘judgement’ is really only yours – how well you did, not where you started in the pack.

As part of my work with the Christ Renews His Parish, I have come to understand that a person’s journey of faith starts whenever the person allows the Holy Spirit to, shall we say, fire the starting pistol. Some persons were blessed with a strong, well pronounced faith from youth. Others have joined the search much later in life. Just as there are only a very few ‘elite’ runners who finish at the head of the pack, there are very, very few persons of ‘perfect’ faith who we could never surpass.

But for most of us, being elite runners isn’t the point, just as being the perfect Christian isn’t in our reach (I think there was only one). It’s the race that matters. It’s the journey that matters. All we need to do is start – even if we start a little later than others.

 

This is really hard.

Once you get past the point of trying be beat the nearby runners who continually draw farther away from you, the race eventually gets to be what you knew it was going to be all along – a deep personal struggle to keep going at your best possible pace.

As with any physical challenge, the competitor struggles to overcome pain, fatigue, and the disappointment that comes with missed objectives. Add the facts that the adrenalin that flowed during the start of the event wears off quickly, along with the need to avoid the obstacles put in your path (I almost tripped on the curb when I started doing the ‘YMCA’ moves to the music of the Village People at mile 4), and you have an experience that is as deeply personal as it gets.

We like to think that our Church founders all had a direct, straightforward, unencumbered sprint through their spiritual race. But even some of the church founders had a course full of learning curves (Augustine hung with the Manichaeists in his youth, Ignatius wanted to be a famous warrior, and even Mother Theresa often felt that God had abandoned her).

But just like the good runner keeps his or her focus on the finish line, persons of faith keep focus on the truth of the gospel and what they hope to learn from its message. Doubts, disappointments, and pain come with the territory – but just like any competitor, people seeking truth know one thing — if you stop, you get no closer to where you need to be.

 

The good people in your life want you in the race.

I had mentioned that the race course is lined by all sorts of civic organizations manning water and refreshment stops. But there are also hundreds, if not thousands of locals lining the route, some playing music in their front yard, others waving pom-poms and cheering. All are smiling.

I don’t know why they come out – maybe they are waiting for the run to finish so they can get into their cars and drive to the mall. But more likely, they too want to be part of the event, even if it only to show a sense of hospitality and encouragement to those running.

And then, there are the runners themselves. You really can get a sense of how important people are to each other when you watch the countless ‘selfies’ being taken. At the start and the finish, everywhere you looked there were fathers taking pictures with their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and of course, running companions with each other. This event is no place for self-portraits. Here, all digital records capture relationships.

I was left thinking that if my faith journey were like a race, who would be lining the route to cheer me on? On a spiritual course that doesn’t play by rules of time and space, would the course be lined by all those who came before me, past relatives of my youth,  maybe distant ancestors who I never met, maybe even some of the saints of our tradition? Or could there be persons from my future self’s life, persons whose own futures may depend on my actions to come, on my behaviors-to-be, choices based on the race well run.

As for relationships – is it an accident that all the sacraments of our tradition seem to emphasize building relationships? Even those rendered in apparent solitude (e.g. Reconciliation, the Anointing) still involve the presence of another person who helps repair or sustain relationships with our God. Being Catholic Christian may, at times, feel lonely, but the core of our faith always has been, and always will be, growing the relationship with our God and with those around us whose presence testifies to His love.

 

Why do we do it?

Ask any runner (or cyclist, or surfer, or whatever) as to why they do what they do, and you get some mumbo jumbo about it being part of their lives, something they couldn’t live without.

Personally, I think we pursue events like these because, even though we need protection and shelter, we find ourselves missing something without feeling the morning sun on our face, the cool breeze of a downhill run or the smell of the ocean. To live a life only inside our houses, confined by our cubicles, or entrapped in our cars is a denial of natural experience we know we need. That is why runners and amateur athletes of all kinds attest to not being able to live without their passion.

Faith is no different.

Despite all the news about the challenges facing today’s Church, I think that when we are truly honest with ourselves, the spiritual journey is something we all can’t live without. Just as runners feel drawn to the road, we all are drawn to explore our relationship with the one source.

It is hard to put that draw into words.

Paul writes that the God’s Spirit is written not on “tablets of stone, but tablets of the human heart”.

And our own catechism points out: “In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being.”

Just as people say they need to run because it is ‘part of them’, I think we are also called to explore our faith to find the message that has been written on our hearts.

As a part-time runner (other time cyclist), I repeatedly train, rain or sun, night or day, and compete because it feels as if this is a fixed part of my life – a regimen and discipline that I believe makes me who I am, makes me a better person than I would be had I chosen not to join the race.

And…

As a an amateur Catholic, I repeatedly explore my faith, exercise the discipline to seek the answers that don’t always come so easily, and despite occasional disappointments and setbacks, continue to try to understand and build the relationship with a God who calls me to the starting line each and every day.

I believe this makes me who I am, makes me a better person than I would be had I chosen not to join the field.

 


 

References:

http://www.active.com/running/articles/10-biggest-10ks-in-the-u-s
http://www.americancatholic.org/messenger/dec2007/Editorial.asp
http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c1.htm
2 Corinthians 3:3

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