Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Blessedness in Believing without Seeing

Second Sunday of Easter Year B

Mystical events that seem to defy the laws of science have fascinated people in various places and times. Miracle healings, spiritual visitations, apparitions, icons and statues that weep, hands and feet that seem to bear the wounds of Christ, images of Christ or Our Lady appearing on various objects, oil and other substance oozing out of objects, are not only the grist for tabloid press but have also won a place in mainline belief.  Any word of weeping statues, leaking paintings, miraculous appearances of images is bound to attract a whole spectrum of visitors, from believers, paranormal investigators, sceptics, to the tabloid media.

Why this frenzied interest? It would seem that the need for images, or the need for “seeing” is fundamental. It is living proof that our faith is often not just an abstraction but rather a conclusion drawn from what is perceptible. Perhaps, more than anything else in these troubled times, sight of such phenomena reawakens faith and hope above all else. Each of us, deep down inside, wants to be thrilled by what Robert Fran├žois calls “a theophany, a manifestation of God, a certain proof, before (we) believe in His existence.” At times we are more demanding than St. Thomas the Apostle himself, and we want to be continually touching the miraculous action of God in order to believe in it.

But the difficulty lies in authenticating such phenomena. It is objectively real or just the figment of our imagination, the delusions of mental derangement or the product of a hoax? It’s very difficult to separate miracles from wishful thinking, reality from hallucinations, authentic mystical experiences from hoaxes. To the sceptical mind, such occurrences are part of the spectrum of religious fantasies that includes such idiocies as the US$28,000 sale on ebay of a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with an “image” of Mary. The woman who sold the sandwich claimed that the image helped her to win $70,000 at the casino.

As much as most people would give greater value to something which is perceptible, something which they can see, something tangible, the spiritual value and the quality of faith ascends by another ladder. Thus, such paranormal phenomena, though receiving great attention on a popular scale, literally has a very humble place in the Church. This is what Jesus promises today, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” In an interview at Fatima, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) spoke about visions and apparitions: “To all curious people, I would say I am certain that the Virgin does not engage in sensationalism; she does not act in order to instigate fear. She does not present apocalyptic visions, but guides people to her Son. And this is what is essential … to call the world back to simplicity, that is, to the essentials: conversion, prayer, and the sacraments.” According to Pope Benedict in Verbum Domini, apparitions or “private” revelation is “judged by its orientation to Christ himself. If it leads us away from Him, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, Who guides us more deeply into the Gospel and not away from it.”

Today’s gospel speaks of the value in seeing in order to believe but makes a far more important case for believing without having to see.  The story is comprised of two resurrection appearances – one on Easter evening, the second a week later. Thomas was absent in the first, and was present in the second. Being absent during the first appearance, St Thomas did not see the resurrected Lord, nor did he behold the Saviour’s wounded hands and side. And so it was that when Thomas was told that Jesus had appeared to them, he refused to believe. Eight days passed. The disciples were all together once again, including Thomas. Jesus appears in their midst though the doors are locked. Immediately, Jesus turns His attention to Thomas. He summons Thomas to come and to put his finger where the nails had pierced His hands, and to feel His side where the spear had pierced it. But now after seeing Jesus alive he no longer required this proof. It may have taken this sight to convince Thomas, but once convinced, Thomas shed his unbelief and exchanged it with belief, not only of the truth of the resurrection, but that this Jesus was His Lord and God. But there is something far greater in store for those who were not present at both these appearances but had to rely on eyewitness reports alone, namely us. Jesus announces this in the form of a Beatitude, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

An important thesis has been advanced by St John in his gospel as he makes the case for seeing – Seeing is believing. In last week’s Sunday gospel reading, the Beloved Disciple “saw and believed.” Yet, seeing can never encompass the whole gamut and spectrum of faith. Scriptures affirm the truth that “believing is also seeing.” In Bethany, Our Lord himself assures Martha that if she believed she would see. St Paul would also attest to this truth by affirming “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

There is no doubt that there is blessedness in seeing; and there is blessedness in believing; and there is blessedness in believing after seeing; but that of which the Lord here speaks is a blessedness different from these, and truer than all of them—the blessedness of believing without seeing. Thomas and the other apostles had the privilege of seeing and believing, and many would envy their advantage as firsthand witnesses; yet the Lord assures the rest of us who have “not seen” him in the flesh, that there is great blessedness in believing even when we are denied to opportunity to see. This blessedness flows from simple faith, in the absence of all visible or sensible helps; simple faith, that counts God's testimony sufficient, makes no demands of signs from him, though, in doing this, it is unassisted by eye, or ear, or hand.

Just like St Thomas was called, we too are invited to move beyond the sensational aspects of the resurrection to a more mature faith in Jesus as ever present to his followers. We who live beyond the age of the first eyewitnesses of the wonder of the resurrection, and who have to contend with second hand accounts of this event, would find consolation in this story of St Thomas. As one who hesitated, questioned, and then moved from scepticism to a firmer, more committed faith, Thomas is a source of encouragement for all of us, who often struggle with issues of faith especially in the face of an apparently invisible and intangible God.

This is the Church’s day of faith, not of sight; for during her Lord's absence, she lives by believing, not seeing. Others have seen for her; and she believes what they saw. She hears the report concerning the dead, buried, risen Saviour; and, believing it, she rejoices with joy unspeakable and full of glory. So, today we ask for a greater faith to believe even without seeing. We need not ask for a sign; there shall no sign given but the sign of Jonah; the sign of the Son of Man being raised up, the sign of the Empty Tomb, and the sign of his everlasting presence in the breaking of bread. This is her blessedness and honour. Let our faith rest simply there, in the absence of sense, or sight, or feeling, or sign, external or internal. Remember how it is written, “If you shall believe, you shall see.” The vision will come in its due time, and it will be infinitely glorious; meanwhile, walk by faith, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away. Till then, “happy (and blessed) are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  

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