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Belief and understanding

Kate Barrett | Wednesday, March 20, 2013

“Do not try to understand in order to believe, but believe in order to understand.”
I came across this quotation by St. Augustine of Hippo recently in a book of prayer my husband and I regularly use together. It appeared in the midst of the Scriptures and prayers for Thursday, Mar. 14.  Maybe it was simply because we are approaching the end of Lent, but its timeliness has struck me again and again in the past week.
The Gospel readings for these last days of Lent describe the tension that now fills every situation wherever Jesus goes. Animosity, fear and jealousy drive both the leaders of the Jews and their Roman oppressors, and they look for opportunities to arrest Jesus or even to kill him. Yet Jesus somehow slips out of their grasp, eludes their pursuit and escapes from their power, all the while teaching his disciples, raising the dead Lazarus, praying with his friends and showing mercy to the woman caught in adultery.
The difference between Jesus’ attitude and that of his opponents presents a stark contrast, and one St. Augustine still recognized 400 years later. The Jewish leaders who feared and hated Jesus tried to lead from their understanding when they really needed to cast their lots in on the side of belief. Jesus again and again offered the Pharisees freedom, truth and comfort if they would only believe in him, the living Word of God. But again and again, the Pharisees’ responses reflect their attempt to understand rather than trust and believe: “Your testimony cannot be verified,” they accuse Jesus. In the Gospel readings for today and tomorrow they even attempt to stone him for blasphemy.  
In the last days of his life, Jesus faced not only hostility from the religious leaders but the cowardice, fear and betrayal of his closest friends. Judas sold him out for a relatively cheap price of 30 shekels. Peter denied him. By the time Jesus hung on the cross, John alone remained out of his twelve companions because their belief could not yet summon the strength to overcome their lack of understanding.
At the same time, Jesus must have been touched by the glimmers of faith he saw growing in the hearts of his disciples even as he faced death. As he washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, he told Simon Peter, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Finally, Peter, his heart opening to belief even though he did not in fact understand, replied, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
How could we ever reason our way to a God who, surely possessed of the power and opportunity to come down off the cross and strike down everyone in authority who put him there, instead chose to remain nailed in place and pray for mercy toward his tormentors?
As is true at any point in the year or at any point in our lives, but especially during these days of Lent and Holy Week, we walk with Jesus not necessarily because we understand, but because we believe. When we hear again next week the amazing stories of Jesus taking up his cross, we can allow our belief in Jesus and our gratitude to God to lighten the crosses we bear as well. We will never suffer humiliation, pain, rejection or shame on the same scale the Son of God suffered for each of us, and yet through the complete and total gift of himself, Jesus remains at our side through each of the crosses we encounter.  When we open our hearts to belief in this most profound of truths, we will have the freedom to begin to understand.
Kate Barrett is the assistant director of Undergraduate Life in the Office of Campus Ministry.
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.