Saturday, October 01, 2005

Believing is Not Seeing

One of the most helpful sayings that Jesus has bequeathed to us (who need some encouragement in the midst of our blind stumbling) is this: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). St Thomas’ not-believing-until-seeing was rewarded only for the sake of creating an occasion for Jesus to utter this most important saying. Thomas was actually reproached (mildly) for demanding to see first, but a blessing is pronounced on those who believe without having seen. This is an essential dimension of faith.

We can perhaps identify with Thomas. We’d like to see, to have direct tangible experience of God and his miracles. We may tend to regard others’ testimonies as perhaps somewhat helpful, but not nearly sufficient. Think of all the testimonies we find in Scripture and in the lives of the saints, all of which indicate and support the truths that God has revealed. The visions, the miracles, the unmistakable signs—but we tend to withhold our full assent unless and until we’ve experienced it ourselves. Yet another essential dimension of faith is belief based on the authoritative testimony of eyewitnesses. St John explicitly states why he wrote his testimony of what Jesus did: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). I have not seen the risen Lord, but the apostles did, and I believe their testimony, so I have faith in Him whom I have not seen. Not only that, we are called to love Him whom we have not seen (1Peter 1:8), and for this we are in need of divine grace.

Did the apostles need no faith to recognize the risen Lord? You might think not, since He was standing in their midst. But there are several post-resurrection appearances which were not a simple matter of seeing. The most obvious one is the appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The risen Lord was walking and talking with them, and they saw Him, but they did not recognize Him and hence could not believe in Him. They even talked in discouraged fashion about their dashed hopes in Jesus of Nazareth, whom they thought would be the triumphant Messiah. It was only in the “breaking of the bread” that they finally recognized Him.

Another, perhaps less obvious, post-resurrection appearance happened when the apostles were fishing (John 21). As they were enjoying the meal of miraculously-caught fish, the text states: “None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord” (v. 12). The only reason they could possibly have had for asking someone they lived with daily for three years, “Who are you?”, is that He appeared to them in a way that was unlike the way He looked during his earthly life. They recognized Him by his works: it was when St John saw the miracle that he cried, “It is the Lord!” Again, St Mark notes (perhaps referring to the Emmaus event), that Jesus appeared “in another form” after his resurrection (16:12). So there were occasions when even the eyewitness had to believe without seeing, or without recognizing what they saw.

In this modern age, when only some sort of scientific or empirical verification is deemed acceptable for establishing fact, believing without seeing may seem to stand as an anomaly, a foolish endeavor, an unreliable means of knowing. But the Son of God, who created everything that scientists try empirically to verify (and hence ought to know how things really work and what truth and knowledge really are), pronounces a blessing on those who believe without seeing. Let us receive the blessing of the unseeing believers, and we’ll be granted a new form of sight. Let us recognize Him in the breaking of the bread (for in the Holy Eucharist the risen Lord appears to us “in another form”), in his works, and in the testimony of those who have seen.

Sure, I’d like to see, too. But in the long run I’d rather be blessed.