Experiencing the Risen Word
Second Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday). Fr Aidan Nichols suggests that faith in the tradition of the Church goes hand in hand with our experience of the Risen Christ.
In the First Eucharistic Prayer we profess that our faith ‘comes to us from the apostles’. Today in the Gospel we have an example of what this means, one of the situations where the risen Christ showed himself to the apostles — mysteriously but truly.
Our faith depends — in one sense — on the trustworthiness of stories like these, on the reliability of the apostles, the people who to their amazement and joy saw the risen Lord. Is our faith, then, really faith in other people, as fallible as ourselves (so we might think) and a good deal less educated? Actually, no. Our faith is in God alone: faith is assent to God and trust in him.
Yet the truth of God to which faith responds is mediated by the frail fabric of human testimony: ‘Go and tell his disciples and Peter’; ‘The Lord has arisen and has appeared to Simon’; ‘Their eyes were opened and they knew him in the breaking of the bread’; ‘We have seen the Lord’.
We know how the people who said or wrote these words were changed overnight. From defeat and disillusion with the ‘Jesus movement’, they became men and women who could turn the world of their day upside down. Our faith depends in a sense on their authority, in the original meaning of that word — which is being trustworthy at source, being reliable from the very word go.
The Catholic understanding of the Church takes all this for granted. Faith involves us in tradition — Gospel witness handed down from one generation to the next. This witness is present first of all in Scripture. It is expressed in a variety of ways in Church life from sacred art to the holiness of the saints. It is guarded and interpreted by the living voice of the Pope and Bishops. Faithfulness to what has been received from the past is all-important for us: passing on the ‘deposit’, the Faith once delivered to the saints — which means, first and foremost, the apostles.
This sense of passing on a precious witness has been so strong in Catholicism that it has sometimes swamped what should be the complementary sense that we ourselves — the living — are also meant to be direct witnesses ourselves. Not that we can put ourselves back into Galilee or Jerusalem in the year 33. But nonetheless we are meant to experience something of the realities the Gospel describes.
In the early part of the twentieth century, when claims arose along these lines that were over-inflated, Church authority became suspicious of the idea of ‘Christian experience’ (the special case of the saints and duly recognised visionaries apart). Surely the Christian’s chief responsibility is to obey the Word of God by faith, not to seek out subjective experiences? Yet faith does involve us in experience, it involves a contact with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, with the realities of the New Testament. Prayer, the sacraments, the use of the Christian imagination under grace in everyday living: all these are or can be experiential contact with the risen Christ. We too are meant to say in some sense, ‘We have seen the Lord’.
The peace, joy and forgiveness of the risen Christ brought to the disciples gathered in the Cenacle on the first Low Sunday, these he brings secretly within reach of us all in the Easter Communions of our own ‘cenacles’ — the churches and chapels where we worship, and the inner room of our own hearts. All ages are open to God — including our own. The Church’s doctrine, and, more widely, the revelation of which doctrine is the expression, makes possible just such experience — the kind of experience that is distinctively Christian and Catholic.
After the Catholic Crisis of the twentieth century, our task now, in the twenty-first, is to recover our sense of the sovereignty of the Word of God whose truth is found in Scripture as interpreted by the Church — not, however, over against Christian experience but precisely as making that experience possible, in tandem with our own human contribution via imagination, reason, feeling. In a word, via all the ways our human experience comes to be.