I am really not sure what to say about the first year of Pope Benedict’s papacy. I recall a recent John Allen interview with Fr Stephen Pisano, SJ of the Pontifical Biblical Institute that touched on the use of Scriptural imagery in Pope Benedict’s homilies. Fr Pisano said, “I’m delighted to see that. I hope that his constant use of Scripture, his constant references to Scripture in the talks that he gives at the audiences and so forth, will help stimulate a renewed interest in Scripture.” Recently, the Pope recommended the works of Cardinal Martini (for Martini on the Lord’s Prayer, please see my post here). Perhaps, then, the very best way to show gratitude for this first year of Benedict’s pontificate is to pay closer attention to Scripture.
I am sure that I am not alone in failing to be sufficiently attentive to Holy Scripture. During this Easter season, especially, I would like to try to remedy this. Let us look together at a text that we have heard and will hear proclaimed at Mass – the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to St John. The following will be indebted to Kelli S. O’Brien’s recent article “Written That You May Believe: John 20 and Narrative Rhetoric” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly April 2005). Chapter 20 is a memorable chapter indeed in which a weeping Mary Magdalene turns to see her resurrected “Rabbouni” and Thomas moves from doubt to confession. Professor O’Brien reminds us that this is also a very important chapter that even takes the relatively unusual step of directly addressing its reader at its end, “These are written that you may (come to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (20:31).
But this might also be a rather confusing chapter. The other Gospels do remind us of the difficulty of believing in the resurrection of Jesus – regarding the eleven disciples, St Matthew’s Gospel says, “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” (Mt 28:17). But John 20 emphasizes this at considerable length. The story of doubting Thomas is about the failure to be convinced of the resurrection through the testimony of others and the consequent need for personal experience of the Risen Christ. We are reminded of the testimony of the Samaritans, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world” (Jn 4:42, my emphasis). Professor O’Brien explains the dilemma: “[T]he Fourth Gospel speaks to people precisely in Thomas’s situation, to people who were not there on Easter and who did not see or touch Jesus’ wounds, and its purpose is to proclaim to them that very same witness so that they may believe. So how can the Fourth Gospel, a report of other people’s experience, succeed?”
To grasp what might be going on here, we first need to remember that misunderstanding – the initial failure to be convinced – plays a large role in the Gospel of St John. The exegete C.K. Barrett wrote about St John’s “literary formula of enlightenment through initial misunderstanding,” as Nicodemus learns that being born anothen does not mean literally reentering his mother’s womb and the Samaritan woman comes to realize that “living water” is not merely a matter of unending physical sustenance. The characters have to discover that their first impressions and usual categories of thought cannot help them understand the meaning of Jesus Christ – they must move beyond what they have always known to then come into his light. And we the readers must ourselves make this move with them whenever we hear the Gospel proclaimed. The twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John “succeeds” insofar as we really take part in this “enlightenment through initial misunderstanding,” especially, I would say, if we should happen to think that we have attained a level of maturity or sophistication that makes such “enlightenment” unnecessary.
Belief is a difficult process in the Gospel of John. When many disciples leave Jesus after he tells them that his “flesh is true food” and his “blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55), we are told that Peter stays, trusting that his Master has “the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:70). We are not told that this faithfulness comes without pain; it is hardly clear that Peter understands his Master’s “hard” saying. Martha confesses her belief that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). But when Jesus commands that the stone of her brother’s grave be taken away, she protests, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days” (Jn 11:40). Jesus reassures her, and she must stay and believe despite her fears, without fully understanding what is happening or how it might glorify Jesus. The Gospel of John is the Gospel of coming to believe, of the Advocate that the Father will send (Jn 14:26). “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now” (Jn 16:13), Jesus tells us.
I think that we will agree with Professor O’Brien when she says that we can and should identify with the initial confusion, uncertainty, and misunderstandings of the characters in John’s Gospel. But they must learn from their misperceptions; we immediately lose sympathy when they fail to obey or remain with Jesus, like the lame man who “told the Jews that Jesus was the one who had made him well” (Jn 5:15), or the disciples who, faced with a “hard saying,” “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6:66). (Interestingly, the Gospel according to St John does not even let us begin to identify with Judas, who is introduced as “he who would betray him” [Jn 6:71]). As Professor O’Brien summarizes, “The Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as Other, the one who descends from above, the one whom the world does not know, the one who is radically disorienting. In this context, misunderstanding is an essential step toward enlightenment, and belief is characterized less by correctness than by acceptance of the enigma and persistence in following.”
Let’s get back to the resurrection, then. It is easy to look down on Mary Magdalene, who initially thinks that she is speaking to a gardener, and Thomas, who seems to be very stubborn indeed. But they do seem to accept the enigma and persist in following – even if Mary appears, in the words of St John Chrysostom, “not sufficiently spiritual-minded to grasp the fact of the Resurrection from the grave-cloths,” she is still there at the tomb; even if Thomas, to Chrysostom, has a “dull mind” and demands proof for the “most crass of the senses,” he is still there with the apostles. And they are rewarded. Mary Magdalene is the “apostle to the apostles,” the very first to say “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18). Thomas utters, “My Lord and my God!” – the late Fr Raymond Brown called this “the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel.” Again, we often concentrate on what we imagine are Our Lord’s rebukes to Mary and Thomas. But Fr Brown interprets Jesus’ command to “Stop holding onto me” (Jn 20:17) as nothing more than a reminder to Mary of her commission, suggesting that it might even be rendered, “Don’t just stand there! Go tell my brothers!” Jesus does ask Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” But there is no sign of anger here – it is even similar to his earlier question to Nathanael, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” (Jn 1:50). The blessing on those who believe without seeing, namely, future generations, is similar to Jesus’ subsequent statement to Nathanael, “You will see greater things than these.”
It is true that, in contrast to Mary Magdalene and Thomas, the Beloved Disciple seems to immediately believe, but the Beloved Disciple’s belief does not bring anyone else to faith, much less the reader. He gives no confession, no “My Lord and my God!” After he presumably comes to believe, rather strangely, “The disciples returned to their own homes” (Jn 20:10), and Mary Magdalene is left weeping alone by the tomb. The Beloved Disciple only really witnesses to us at the end of the Gospel – “It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them …” (Jn 21:24). The presence of the Beloved Disciple should not cast a negative light on the experiences of Mary and Thomas.
So, how do we come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? The Gospel of John seems to suggest that we must encounter the risen Lord. But, then, “How can the Fourth Gospel, a report of other people’s experience, succeed?” Professor O’Brien writes of this Fourth Gospel:
[T]he author helps to recreate the experience of encountering Jesus and the journey of faith for readers by subjecting them to the initial confusion experienced by the first disciples and continually bringing them to new ways of seeing, new methods of interpretation so that they might gain a clearer understanding of what is not of this world. The author does so by creating interpretive difficulties, deliberately setting up misunderstandings, so that readers might learn how to correct them in light of the truth presented in Jesus, and by creating characters whose interpretive errors and corrections not only show the way but bring readers along with them.
I think, then, that we must resist two temptations. The first temptation moves us to retreat to an easier position whenever we encounter confusion, and we end up settling for the belief that the resurrection is merely a metaphor or a subjective experience. But I do not think that we can say that “Christ has trampled death by his death” on the basis of a metaphor or a subjective experience. Death is far too real. The second temptation seeks to avoid confusion by asserting that the resurrection is obvious, and we react with anger and impatience to any sign of ambiguity.
We must believe in the resurrection; as St Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then empty (too) is our preaching; empty, too, your faith” (1 Cor 15:14). But we might find ourselves weeping as our God seems to be “taken away” and we might find ourselves plagued with doubts. In that case, we must let God, through the Gospel of St John, “bring us along” with Mary Magdalene and Thomas to an encounter with the Risen Lord.
Please let me know what you think (or if this is incomprehensible …)