With faith there always comes the temptation to move towards certainty. It follows, as if it were an obvious consequence, that the persons who truly believe are automatically imbued with a knowledge that will sustain them in their decisions and see them through all of life’s events. This type of certainty can take the form of a bubble of devotional practices, a set of religious duties, or strong moralistic convictions (where it comes to the life of others). This seems to hold true particularly for the Church and its institutions. Tradition, centuries of reflection, dogmas and laws, give the religious establishment a sense that it possesses enough experience and knowledge to address any emerging situation as rephrased old questions. The risk is that rather than basing its life on an ever-creative faith it rather shifts on the foundation of claims of legalism or clerical moralism. (Pope Frances Angelus, 21st March 2021)
Throughout Lent I was struck by three accounts in John’s Gospel that, at face value seem unrelated. But this is the John, where nothing is disconnected: at a deeper level, this Gospel is always a treasure trove of spiritual experience. I am referring to Jn 2: The miracle at Cana, Jn 12: Jesus predicts his death, and Jn 20: Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. Let us very briefly follow this line of thought. I invite you to withhold your judgment, thinking about Jesus as predominantly God, who knew everything and eagerly and with certainty took decisions. I suspect that relying too much on this view of Jesus might appeal less to our human experience. Jesus being fully human too, had to discover things, overcome resistances and live with the unknown.
The wedding at Cana, finds Jesus the son of a carpenter and friend of some fishermen leading a simple hidden life: inconspicuous, and marked by routine. The incident at the wedding, with his mother pushing him into the limelight, came as a wakeup call for him: “Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” Mary shook his life and plunged him into unchartered territory. He grappled with obedience and surely agonized with his conscience to truly assess if he had it in him. The result of this inner turmoil brings forth a new phase: one closer to “the hour”.
Fast forward three years and the last time that Jesus went up to Jerusalem, a group of Greeks (possibly Hellenistic Jews or Godfearing) push Jesus once again closer to the hour. Coming from a pagan environment, this group of people went up during the Passover festival to look for Jesus rather than to the Temple, putting him in direct confrontation with the religious Jewish institutions of the time. These Greeks challenge Jesus once again into taking a decision to move out from his ministry as a marginal rabbi to assume that of the suffering saviour. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” Jesus once again grits his teeth faced with the pain of unchartered paths and cries to the Father that difficult obedience which the synoptic Gospels place in Gethsemane. He trusts that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Jesus clearly shows us that living an authentic faith journey is often an invitation to venturing into the unknown. … As an Easter community it would be a good thing to be shaken from our trees and fall like seed into the dirt rather than stay high above the ground, thinking that we have it all while rotting from the inside.
Three days later, early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. The human reaction was to embrace: to hold on tight to old tested ways. For Mary, this was the Jesus she travelled with and lost for a couple of days; for Jesus here was the disciple he had brought out of darkness and nurtured in faith. Jesus’ warning “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” stops Mary in her tracks and this time it is the disciple who is thrown into unchartered territory.
Jesus clearly shows us that living an authentic faith journey is often an invitation to venturing into the unknown. Real obedience is never easy or cheap because it always asks from us a change. Suffering lived as the cross seems always to have the timing all wrong: we rather prefer to go the easy way, our way. Whilst the Easter of Christ assures us of the bigger picture, the daily Easters of our lives are still to be discovered. As an Easter community it would be a good thing to be shaken from our trees and fall like seed into the dirt rather than stay high above the ground, thinking that we have it all while rotting from the inside. Clinging to old branches, showing off past fruits which have become dried up and life-less, or more concretely staying safe in our closed rituals and moralisms all become dead weights in the Church and the world.
Like the mother of Jesus and the Greeks, the pandemic is shaking up our trees so that we start letting go of our old securities and practices and fall onto unchartered grounds. It is ok if we do not have the answers for what comes next, in what way we will start growing up again. I suspect that the world would rather listen to a vulnerable, self-giving Church rather than a self-referential and secure one! Can we obey the risen Christ telling us to not cling to the old ways of preaching the Gospel? Can we start by not excluding those for whom we have no answer, and not distance ourselves from those who are different? If so, like Mary Magdalene we will have a message to take to our brothers and sisters. Like her we can proclaim “I have seen the Lord!”, even though we have only understood partially.
Many times, I see ourselves lay and religious missionaries at a loss from where to start. Evangelization is such an overarching concept, so often a disputed theme that we have stopped speaking about it. I suspect that many times we set off from the wrong place: seeing it as a fruit on the tree rather than a seed on the ground. Maybe if we start from our vulnerabilities, woundedness and fallen stances it will not be as complicated – who knows, the ground might actually be a fertile one. It may be uncharted yes, but there will surely be a gardener to call us by name, free us from our old constraints, and sending us anew as living witnesses of His life.
We need this type of Easter as “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Rm 8:19
Fr Mark Grima mssp