Sunday, April 2, 2017

"Do you believe this?"

Readings: Ezk 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Rom 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

It's funny what you notice in a Gospel reading by proclaiming it out loud at Mass. As a deacon, I have the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel in the Eucharistic assembly. In fact, proclaiming the Gospel is the most indispensable thing a deacon does in the Mass.

In proclaiming the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A of the lectionary cycle, both last night and again this morning, I was struck by what Thomas said in response to Jesus telling his disciples (there are no apostles, as such, in St. John's Gospel) that Lazarus was not sleeping but was, in fact, dead. After telling his disciples of Lazarus' death, which no doubt saddened them because, like Jesus, they probably knew Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, quite well, the Lord tells them he is glad he was not there to heal Lazarus (something for which both Martha and Mary sort of him rebuke for) "that you may believe" (John 11:14-15).

If we take what Jesus said to Martha as the content of what the disciples were to believe, then what they were to believe is what the Lord said to Lazarus' grieving sister: "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26). Raising Lazarus, which was a resuscitation, not (yet) resurrection, Jesus, in praying to the Father, expressed, once again, his ambivalence when it comes to working miracles: "Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me" (John 11:41-42).

Backing up to Jesus' summons to his disciples to accompany him to Bethany, where Lazarus lived and was now entombed, with the words "Let us go to him" (John 11:15), Thomas, who was called "Didymus" ("the twin"), or "Doubting Thomas," as he came to be popularly known due to his refusal to believe his fellow disciples when they told him Jesus was risen from the dead, replied with these words: "Let us also go to die with him" (John 11:16). What? Doubting Thomas made this faith-filled statement? Indeed, he did. I think exploring the meaning of this easy-to-miss statement can allow us to go deeper, not into the mind and soul of "Doubting" Thomas, but into the nature of faith, which is what makes it relevant to us.

One way to understand this puzzling statement is that while Thomas understood Jesus' summons to die, he did not yet fully grasp resurrection. To be fair, neither did any of the other disciples. But really, who among us does? Faith does not come by giving intellectual assent to a series of well-thought-out propositions convincingly exposited. Faith comes through experience, from events, things that happen to you, by hearing, which, in turn, comes "through the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17). Like Thomas, I think we're more familiar with dying than rising, which sometimes appears outside the realm of what is possible, but with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26; Mark 10:27).

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Guercino, 1621

Because it can easily give rise and/or lend support to an unhealthy Platonic dualism that is sadly all-too-familiar among Christians even today, I think it helps to point out that in our second reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, the distinction the apostle makes between "spirit" and "flesh" can in no way be construed as a rejection of the body. In other words, salvation is not achieved by liberating our spirits from our bodies, as the Manicheans and other Gnostics believed. To understand what St. Paul wrote as being dismissive of or denigrating the body is not only to badly misread this passage, it demonstrates an adherence to a Gnostic tendency that has led to a lot of what I briefly described in Friday's post. As human beings, we are embodied beings, which is why bodily resurrection is so terribly important for us.

The Greek word for "physical body" transliterates into English as soma, whereas the Greek word for flesh transliterates as sarx. The word St. Paul uses for spirit, whether our spirit or God's, is pneuma. Like sarki, the proper form of sarx for the context in which the apostle employs the word, the appropriate variant of soma (i.e., soma- singular; somata- plural) is used twice in this passage. It is good that both sarx and soma are used because it helps us grasp the distinction between flesh and body.

Soma first appears in the phrase- "the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also" (Rom 8:10- emboldening and italicizing emphasis mine). Because the word in the original Greek is soma, the word "bodies" in this verse is better translated as "body," as it often is in other English translations. Somata appears in this sentence: "If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rom 8:11- emboldening and italicized emphasis mine). By "flesh" (i.e., sarki), St. Paul referred to something like an unregenerate mind or soul, a person who has not received, has not been infused with, the Holy Spirit, what the apostle, in this passage, refers to as both "the Spirit of God" and "the Spirit of Christ"- the indwelling of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We can't really blame Thomas for not grasping resurrection, even after witnessing Jesus' miraculous resuscitation of Lazarus, or even for refusing to believe the testimony of his fellow disciples after Christ was raised was from dead. Would you have believed? More importantly, as Jesus asked Martha, "Do you believe this?" It's a lot to grasp; too much at times, really. Like Thomas, what remains important for us, what we are supposed to be reminded of on Fridays of Lent as we abstain and generously give alms to help those in need of material assistance, as we walk the Stations of the Cross together, is the necessity of going to die with Jesus. The only way beyond the Cross is through the Cross. In order to enter the light, you must first pass through darkness.

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