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Lessons from an atheist: Deep into the life of Christ

Del Fra, Lou | Thursday, September 11, 2008

A few years ago at a Marriage Prep retreat at Notre Dame for young alumni, I was responsible for meeting with all the inter-faith couples. I knew well that these relationships, however loving, often presented unique challenges for the couple. But even I was caught a little off-guard when, before the retreat, the Director of the Marriage Retreats approached me and said, “This woman from Notre Dame is a practicing Catholic. And the man she is marrying is an atheist.” Courageously, I tried to get out of it, arguing that having no faith can’t possibly count as an inter-faith couple! But they didn’t buy it.So, with a bit of apprehension, I decided to take a walk with this young man – break the ice in a casual way, try to figure out what he thinks about things that matter deeply to his bride-to-be, like Christianity. So, we’re walking around St. Mary’s Lake, and to my surprise, we quickly hit it off. This guy was great, one head, no weapons. Even more, our conversation revealed him as a great lover of humanity. He believed in respecting every human being, tried to treat others fairly and was profoundly ethical. So finally, about a half-hour into the conversation, I asked him, “So, what do you think about Jesus?”And without missing a beat, he shoots back an amazing reply, which was more or less: “I think Jesus was a profound teacher. He gave the world an incredible system of morals. And the thing I respect about him the most is that he lived by what he taught – even when it cost him his life. For me, he’s one of the great moral examples we have of what it means to live life with total integrity and to be fully human.”And as he’s answering, I’m thinking, “Darn, that’s pretty good!” And then I got nervous. I felt sure he was going to ask me, “So what do you think about Jesus?” And in the moment, I wasn’t sure I could come up with anything more!Now, fortunately, he didn’t ask, but the question lurked in the back of my mind for the rest of our walk. When I went to bed that night, I was still thinking about our conversation, and the question really started to hit home: “What more do I have to say about who Jesus is?” Call it a matter of pride, but I really want to be able to say more about Jesus than an atheist can!Looking back, the encounter reminds me of a similar exchange between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. They respond with some pretty flattering descriptions: Some think he’s John the Baptist back from the dead, others that he’s Elijah or one of the great prophets. And these are not hugely bad guesses.So perhaps, like me, the disciples squirmed when Jesus paused, looked at them and asked them the very same question that I was faced with after my walk with the atheist: “But you, who do you say that I am?”Peter, when confronted with the question, is given the grace to blurt out, “You are the Christ, the Son of God!” But such a gift of immediate recognition is not always at hand. More often, I have to wrestle with my belief. And as I wrestle with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” I find myself reflecting on other stories from the Gospels, connected to particularly significant moments in my life, gracing me with a deeper, more intimate understanding of Jesus.”Who do I say that Jesus is?” I am led, for example, to the scene of the healing of the paralyzed man: “Your sins are forgiven. Take up your mat and walk.” I start to form an answer: “Jesus is my healer – He is the one who forgives my sins and heals my soul, my hurts and tells me to walk where he leads.”I am led to the encounter on the road to Emmaus – and I think, “Jesus is the one who has walked beside me my entire life – and sometimes I hardly knew it – but then, suddenly, I knew nothing more certainly than Him.”I think especially of my favorite passage: the beautiful encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning. She doesn’t recognize him, but when he says her name – “Mary” – she suddenly knows it is him and tries to throw her arms around the one she loves. And I think, “Jesus is the one who knows me most intimately, my whole being, and calls me by name to a deeper friendship with Him.”Who do we say that Jesus is? When Jesus invites us to know him more deeply than before – as I believe he invited me, through this encounter with this atheist – how do we respond? When we are led past our everyday, comfortable images of Jesus, to ones of deeper, more intimate friendship with him, who do we discover? I believe, in the end, through the gift of our faith, that we are all being led to Peter’s graced insight – “You are the Christ!”But sometimes, to deepen our faith, it takes time. It takes challenges – a sickness, the death of a loved one, tragedies like 9/11 that we remember today, moments of unbelief. And we’re suddenly confronted with the question: “You, who do you say that I am?”When these challenges unfold in our own lives, stir up our hearts, make us restless and invite us to come to know Jesus more deeply, let us pray for the grace to really wrestle with the question: “Who do you say that I am?”So that in the end, we might be led, little by little, challenge by challenge, to Peter’s revelation – “You are the Christ!” – the very fulfillment of our lives.

This week’s article is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, Director of Campus Ministry Bible Studies. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.