Catholics are frequently told that the paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection is the centre of our faith. Everything hangs on the truth and the power of that mystery.
If Christ did not rise from the dead then our faith is in vain. The wages of sin is death and if Christ has not conquered death, he has not conquered sin. He has failed to redeem humanity.
All of this is true and of utmost importance but, I suspect, of little help to a person who is on the outside of the faith, daring to wonder whether to step in.
For what draws one to faith is the person of Jesus. Here is a man who, 2,000 years after he walked among us, continues to exert an almost magnetic attraction for those who read and grapple with the Gospels. In Jesus, we have not a philosopher, but a man of the purest simplicity and goodness.
No one who reads the Gospels can ignore the way Jesus reached out and performed remarkable acts of healing and kindness for those forgotten ones who came to him — beggars, prostitutes, lepers, sick and elderly women. In the ways they most needed help, Jesus helped them when they asked and sought no publicity for himself.
John and Denise Carmody write, "Much of the appeal of Jesus has lain in his ability to touch wounded hearts. People down on themselves, finding they were no good or had no future, could hear in his preaching a gentle counsel to never lose heart.
"Jesus did not tell them that they were not really so bad or that they haven't made themselves morally ugly. They wouldn't have believed that and Jesus didn't try to make them.
"His tack rather was to tell them that God did not much care about moral beauty or ugliness, that God's love was predicated on something far more intrinsic and profound. For Jesus, God loves each creature as only its parents love a child or its maker loves a product.
"God finally is moved to search people out and to heal people's wounds because that is God's own makeup: utter goodness, never-failing creativity and love" (Jesus: An Introduction, pp. 150-151).
We can't brush aside Jesus' public ministry as just a warm-up for the really good stuff. When, after the death of Judas and Christ's resurrection, the apostles sought a replacement for Judas among the 12, they were careful who they chose.
They would not settle for one who was a witness to the resurrection. They sought "one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us" (Acts 1:21-22).
This new apostle had to have walked with Jesus throughout his public ministry. He had to have seen the miracles and heard the teaching.
No doubt one reason for this requirement was that it was important that the 12th apostle have received the missionary training and teaching that Jesus provided to those closest to him. But, more importantly, the apostle would have had to know Jesus well as a person.
Indeed, this is where our faith is made or broken — on our response to the person of Jesus. Is Jesus someone we can follow from his baptism to Calvary? And, if we follow him, who do we say he is?
As they journeyed with Jesus the disciples had trouble deciding who he was. Many were impressed that Jesus was not a mere interpreter of God's word, but that he spoke as one with authority. But that awareness did not itself bring them to faith in Christ's divinity. Something more was needed.
It was Peter who made the first leap of Christian faith when he told Jesus: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." This, before the crucifixion and before the resurrection. This, based on, but also more than, Peter's intimate knowledge of Jesus as a person. "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you," Jesus responded to Peter, "but my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:16-17).
With this proclamation of faith, everything changes. Now we head towards the cross and the resurrection. With a full knowledge of Jesus' identity, the final stages of the mystery of Jesus' redemption can take place. Now that we know God is fully our brother, we can receive the further revelation — that he will take our sins upon his shoulder and die for us. And by dying and rising, he will enable us to be one with him.
When we look back over Jesus' life through the prism of the resurrection, everything will look different, be shot through with fuller meaning than it had before we knew how Christ was to conquer death. The virgin birth, the wedding at Cana, the woman at the well — the meaning of these and other events will all be clearer and richer for us than before the resurrection. But to come to believe in the resurrection we will first need to come to know Jesus, the man from Galilee.
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