By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
The Gospels of the Easter season are bracing. They are so real, so bodily. No wonder we sing, “Jesus is truly risen!”
Catch the realness of the Gospels: Jesus comes through locked doors, breathes on the disciples, invites Thomas to place his hands in the wounds, prepares breakfast on a beach. Then, there is that amazing passage of Luke: “‘Why are you disturbed … Look at my hands and feet. It is really I. Touch me, and see that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as I do. Have you anything to eat?’ They gave him a cooked fish which he took and ate in their presence.” The realness of it all!
There is something in our culture that shrinks from this realness, shrinks, that is, from the historical moment, from the particularity: A man named Jesus of a singular place, a single nationality, a particular moment – this Jesus rises from the dead. No, the culture says, let’s talk in more general terms, let’s talk about “religion” or “spirituality” or “peace and justice.”
We Catholics are not immune from being blown by the winds of relativism – all of us. We live in a culture that does not easily hearken to truth-claims. We are expected to be inclusive, dialogic, open-minded – and rightly so. Today’s incivility is no way to live in a pluralistic society. And yet, there is a truth, a reality, a history. In the middle of our culture, right where we live, it is easy to catch a kind of Catholic “embarrassment-influenza.” Embarrassment at being Catholic, of believing in Eucharist, of honoring a “Blessed” Mother, of knowing that Jesus rose from the dead! It’s an influenza that is caught out there in the cold of where we live.
How do we resist the worldly germ of embarrassment? A Flannery O’Connor story comes to mind. The famous Catholic short-story writer was at a dinner. A Catholic in the group starts to cave in by speaking about Eucharist as a nice symbol. Flannery speaks up, “if it’s only a symbol, then the (heck) with it.” (Of course, she did not say “heck!”) Flannery O’Connor was speaking up for the “real” presence of Christ Jesus, real in every way. She had her own way of resisting cultural winds.
Speaking of realness, I am reminded of an Easter poem by the recently deceased writer John Updike. “Make no mistake,” Updike writes, “if He rose at all, it was as His body … the same hinged thumbs and toes … Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping … let us walk through the door. Let us not seek to make it less monstrous for our own convenience … lest, awakened in our unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle and crushed by remonstrance” (From his “Collected Poems”.
Our culture is many things – good and not so good, open to faith and now less open to faith. We are like the disciples – shut behind doors, locked in, blocked, subtly and not so subtly. The walls whisper: faith is OK, but please do not be too real! Be just a little more symbolic, a bit more metaphorical. Do not be a source of embarrassment.
“Why are you disturbed … Look at my hands and feet. It is really I. Touch me, and see that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as I do. Have you anything to eat? They gave him a cooked fish which he took and ate in their presence.” The realness of it all!
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.