Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 2: The Mystery of Faith

Readings: Isaiah 4:2-6, Matthew 8:5-11.

Today's Gospel reading is intended to show us the importance of faith, and also to help us see that the path Jesus forged was open to all, not just to his own people.

As Jesus travels through the town of Capernaum, healing the sick along the way, a centurion approaches him and asks if he would heal a servant who was gravely ill. Without hesitation, Jesus says he will come and heal the servant. The centurion's reply suggests that he didn't think Jesus would actually do such a thing for him. This was a man, after all, whose existence was wrapped up in militarism and occupation, in controlling the people -- Jesus' own people, no less -- that the Roman Empire ruled over by force. Humbled by Jesus' gracious response, the centurion utters a phrase that is the basis of what we speak at every Mass, right before we come forward to receive communion:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed. 

Moved by the centurion's faith and humility, Jesus announces, "In no one in Israel have I found such faith." While many of his own people challenged and rejected him, here was a pagan military officer who simply took it on faith that Jesus was who he said he was. We, the readers, are likewise encouraged to place such faith in Christ.

Faith has never come easy for me. As attracted as I am to the spiritual life, I struggle to believe the extraordinary claims of religion. When I felt called to come back to my Catholic roots, the old lingering doubts I had were still there, and the only way I could work through them was to mine under the surface of the scriptures for their deeper meanings, while taking the more extraordinary claims on faith to the best of my ability. I suppose the important thing was that I was able to at least keep an open mind -- because as much as I might feel I want to be at times, I just don't have it in me to be a cold, hardened skeptic, like the combative atheist who finds a logical explanation to dismiss any and all supernatural claims.

Maybe it helps that I've heard stories of miraculous healings among those who believe. I'd certainly already come to accept that there might be more to this world than we know from having grown up in a house where just about everybody had some sort of bizarre experience, in the form of hauntings, that couldn't be rationally explained away with ease. And it most definitely helps that I've had my own profound spiritual experience in the presence of the Blessed Virgin, who herself has offered miraculous signs and interventions over the centuries to those who place their trust in her. After all, one could chalk up the story of the sun dancing in the sky at Fatima to pious tradition, yet tens of thousands were there who saw it and testified to the event. Even Pope Pius XII claimed to have seen it from the Vatican. Likewise for the Guadalupe tilma on which an image of the Virgin is said to have miraculously appeared: Scientific analysis has been unable to completely explain the origin of the image, and the cloak on which it appeared, made of simple cactus fibers, should have disintegrated within a few short years. Yet it's still with us, more than 500 years later.

On top of that, bearing witness to the miraculous in their own ways, are the holiest of saints, who have demonstrated the extraordinary ability to levitate and bilocate, who have experienced visions of the divine, who have possessed the gift of prophecy, who have been marked with stigmata, and who could not even be saints had it not been proved to the church's satisfaction that they had performed miracles.

And then there are many, many reports of weeping icons and statues.

And finally, there are the Eucharistic miracles -- the stories of consecrated communion hosts that have taken on actual human flesh and blood, many of them preserved for all to see, and some having survived now for well over a millennium. The Catholic church teaches that the bread and wine, after being consecrated, becomes the actual body and blood of Christ, and these incidents would seem to bear that claim out. Even more compelling is that any time the blood from these Eucharistic events has been scientifically tested, they have all revealed the very same blood type, AB -- which, in turn, happens to be the same blood type found on the Shroud of Turin.

At some point, even the most skeptical person has to look at the available evidence and conclude that either it's all an amazingly elaborate hoax carried out over the centuries or just an extraordinary series of coincidences -- or that maybe, just maybe, there's something going on that the rational mind can't explain. Something that can only be accepted with the faith that there are things bigger than us in this universe, things that we can't hope to ever rationally understand.

That doesn't mean we should shut off our thinking brains and simply regurgitate religious claims without critically examining them. What it does mean is that we should perhaps engage with the world around us as far as our logical minds will allow, and then leave our minds open enough to make a leap of faith if the circumstances appear to call for it. One assumes that's what the centurion in the Gospel of Matthew did when he encountered Jesus in Capernaum. Can we leave ourselves vulnerable enough to do the same, in a rational, skeptical world that would scoff at us for doing so?

That's a question we all have to grapple with. It's a question our priest left us with from his Sunday homily, when he proposed that the tenets of Catholic faith, including the resurrection, are objective truths that we should not be afraid to proclaim to the world. "This is a difficult teaching," as the disciples said in the Gospel of John. It seems too much for the modern mind to accept. Yet the people who knew Jesus firsthand went to their deaths defending their claims of being eyewitnesses to Jesus' own resurrection from the dead. If I were supporting a myth that I didn't literally believe in, I would surely recant before facing painful torture and brutal execution.

It makes you think. It makes you confront things that you might not want to confront. Your rational mind might push back against it all with great force. Yet there are the martyrs, the extraordinary lives of the saints, the Eucharistic miracles, the signs from the Blessed Virgin, all of them testifying in their own ways to some pretty bold theological assertions and challenging us to keep an open mind -- indeed, to ultimately make the same leap of faith the centurion did 2,000 years ago.

I can't say with complete honesty that I can do that on this point in my journey. Yet I also can't dismiss the claims out of hand. And so I sit at the intersection of faith and reason, doing my best to leave myself open to whatever comes my way.

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