Although it seems innate to our human nature to want answers to definitively settle every hint of curiosity, every burning question, and every lingering doubt, it seems just as equally innate to God’s nature to not so easily provide all the answers we want. God gave those created in his image a rational mind to wonder about a lot of things, to ask a lot of questions, and to discover answers to those questions. But not all searching automatically leads to certainty. Instead, they sometimes lead to even more questions, even doubt, and wonder and awe. Whenever a child asks “Why?” we are sometimes tempted to explain things as we understand them. But we know that doesn’t always work. We have the benefit of having lived longer … some of us do anyway. We have seen more things, done more things, been more places. We know more things. We might even understand more things. Once I was sitting with a group of first-graders as a class of preschoolers joined them in the schoolyard. Out of the blue, a first-grader slowly shook his head at the new arrivals and lamented, “There’s just so much they still don’t know.”
Now as we grow older, we begin to realize there are some things we just have to accept are beyond us, no matter how much we want or try to understand. When we are young, we get impatient because we have not yet traveled the long and winding road that leads to experience and wisdom. And sometimes we think we do young people a favor by providing them with shortcuts. Not always. When we reflect back on our childhood when we were more curious and impatient, we might actually recognize the blessing of not getting answers much too soon. It makes me a little sad to see innocence slip away. It’s not something you can ever get back. Once you know, you can’t unknow.
Now some questions will lead to even more questions, which isn’t always bad. A healthy curiosity about things of this world can awaken the heart and mind to keep seeking until they arrive at the threshold of mystery, where our bodily senses will need a little help to grasp even greater truths and wisdom. Some people might claim they have been to the mountaintop, and have been given access to mystery, gaining wisdom and understanding beyond all others. Maybe they have. Maybe they haven’t. To me, it’s still like some first-grader looking upon preschoolers and lamenting, “There’s just so much they still don’t know.” But more likely, when our hearts and minds are opened to mysteries beyond us, we will not be too quick to put into words what we discover, not because we also discover greater patience, but because we discover we have no words.
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is as mysterious to us today as it probably was to the frightened apostles and the community of believers gathered in that upper room. And after twenty centuries, with philosophers and theologians and scientists and mystics having combed every strand of earthly knowledge, analyzed every nuance of sacred scripture, plumbed the murky depths of the human mind, and offered their most intricate and learned hypothesis, it still feels like a bunch of first-graders shaking their heads at us preschoolers and lamenting, “There’s just so much they still don’t know.” Now we will never tire of attempting to explain what our minds may grasp. But we will also never have the words we need to adequately describe it.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples on the evening of that first day of the week, even passing through locked doors, his first words to them were “Peace be with you,” and not “So let me explain.” In fact, nowhere in the entire account of this appearance or any appearance after did he ever attempt to address the multitude of burning questions and lingering doubts that tormented their poor little preschool brains. Instead, as they stared in shock and disbelief at him standing right before them, he commissioned them to extend to the rest of the human family the very gift that would make most real and tangible the awesome mystery they will likely never grasp or be able to put into words. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Now unlike the three other gospel accounts, in the gospel of John, Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit upon his apostles on the same day he rose from the grave, and not after his return to the Father. And right from the start, he commissioned them to forgive sins. If I had been in that upper room with them, there was nothing Jesus has said thus far that would have eased my mind and heart. Clearly it was not as pressing a concern for him as it was for his apostles to get some answers. So when poor Thomas was told Jesus was alive, since he was off doing something else on his own that day to soothe his troubled spirit, he rightly demanded an explanation. And with that, he forever came to represent all skeptics and cynics and genuine seekers who decide their senses have not convinced them thoroughly they just have a few more questions that need addressed.
Peace. I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Forgive sins. Perhaps Jesus decided to sidestep the burning question because no one would ever be able to grasp the answer. Instead, by shedding their fears and embracing his peace, and by going forth with the strength of God’s Spirit, this band of frightened disciples might best assist in the work of reconciliation and healing that Jesus accomplished by his cross and resurrection.
It’s an entirely different scene in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It appears the frightened band of Jesus’ followers are no longer as frightened. They walk about in public accompanied by amazing signs and wonders. The sick are cured, and unclean spirits driven out. Their preaching draws large crowds from neighboring towns and villages. And great numbers are added each day to the community of believers. Impressive. But I still have one question. Did they understand the resurrection better by then, or was it still as mysterious as it was that evening in the upper room? If they had a better understanding, you think they would have thought to share it with the rest of us?
My guess is they didn’t. But they most certainly possessed the peace of Jesus. And they took to heart the mission of reconciliation and healing he entrusted to them. And the Holy Spirit was truly active in their lives. And through the forgiveness of our sins, the glorious work of our redemption is accomplished.
Like Thomas we would rather have tangible proof of Jesus risen from the dead. But tangible proof would put all questions and doubts to rest. And what need would there be of faith if we possessed complete certainty? “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” I assure you I cannot explain completely what I believe. And I know there is so much I still don’t know. But we are not fearful. And the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and in the world. And God’s mercy and compassion know no bounds.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019
John 20: 21—23
John 20: 29