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Knowing Christ through atheism

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, September 6, 2012

Several years ago at a marriage preparation retreat at Notre Dame, I was responsible for meeting with the inter-faith couples. I knew well that these relationships, however loving, often presented unique challenges for the couple. But before me was a particularly intriguing couple. The bride-to-be was a practicing Catholic. Her fiancé, an atheist.
With apprehension, I took a walk with this young man, casually tried to glean what he thought about things that matter deeply to his bride-to-be, like Christianity. So, we walked around St. Mary’s Lake, and to my surprise, we quickly hit it off. 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 half an hour into the conversation, I asked him, “So, what do you think about Jesus?”
And, without missing a beat, he replied: “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.”
Of course, as he’s answering, I’m thinking, “Darn, that’s pretty good.” And then I got nervous. Because 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.
Fortunately, he didn’t ask, but the question needled me the rest of the day. When I went home that evening, I was still restless about our conversation. This question wouldn’t let me go: “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.
The encounter is reminiscent of a similar exchange between Jesus and his disciples. One day, Jesus asked his disciples what people are saying about him. The disciples responded with some pretty flattering descriptions. Some thought he’s John the Baptist back from the dead, he was thought he was Elijah or one of the prophets.
So, perhaps like me, the disciples squirmed when Jesus suddenly asked them the very same question I faced 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.” For many of us, however, this gift of immediate recognition is not always near at hand. More often, I have to wrestle out my belief.
And as I wrestle with the question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” I find myself reflecting on other stories from his life, which particularly resonate with significant moments in my life, awakening me to a deeper, more intimate understanding of Jesus.
Who do I say 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,” Jesus said. And I start to form an answer: “Jesus is my healer and liberator – the one who frees me from the attitudes, behaviors and prejudices that constrain my life and vision.”
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, especially in the breaking of the bread, I knew nothing more certainly than Him.”
I am led especially to my favorite Gospel passage, the sublime encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning. She didn’t recognize him, but when he said her name, “Mary,” she suddenly knew it is him, and tried to throw her arms around the one she loved.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, and life in God.”
Who do we say 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 trials: a sickness, the death of a loved one, the displacement of leaving home, an unexpected challenge to our faith or way of being through a class or a friendship. And suddenly we’re confronted with the question: “You, who do you say that I am?” When these challenges appear in our own lives, stir up our hearts and make us restless, they invite us to come to know Jesus more deeply: “Who do you say that I am?”
Ultimately, we can be led, little by little, challenge by challenge, to Peter’s revelation. “You are the Christ!” is the answer to the deepest mysteries of our lives.
This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, director of Pastoral Life for ACE and member of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.