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God denied tenure, low TCEs cited

Father Lou DelFra | Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We’re approaching the time when students get the chance to evaluate their professors. This has me wondering whether, after Judgment Day, we get to fill out TCEs on God? I’d be happy to complete one, but only if God swears to abide by the current anonymity and no-grade-change policies.

Not that I’d have anything particularly damning to say. In fact, I’d give God high scores on “The instructor is well-prepared,” though, granted, omniscience gives God a leg up here, and “The instructor welcomes contact with students outside of Church.” But I’m still thinking about how God would rate on a few of the other criteria …

“When asked questions, the instructor satisfies the students.” Yikes. Question: “Teacher, where do you live?” Answer: “Come and see.” Poetic, yes, but hardly satisfactory. In fact, I’m not sure He ever did answer that one. Furthermore, while some of God’s communiqués seem disproportionately over-the-top (see parting of the Red Sea, the Incarnation, etc), He also, in these post-Biblical days, seems to skip office hours with alarming regularity – maybe He already got tenure?

Scripturally, during these 50 days of Easter, we are immersed in the heart-stirring narratives of the Resurrection – Mary Magdalene at the tomb, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Doubting Thomas. This should be a prime opportunity for God to answer the big questions clearly. For example, there is no greater human question than death – what lies on the other side of our deaths? If God can answer this one, perhaps we can forgive the obscurity with which He responds to many of our smaller inquiries.

God has great material to work with here. He resurrected his son from the dead. High score on “The class material stimulates creative thinking.” If God is more powerful than death, then all kinds of horizons open up. If death is our question, the resurrection is a definitive, and admittedly quite welcome, answer.

The difficulty is that, in the days following the Resurrection, the disciples are plagued by a striking amount of ambiguity, fear, and doubt. And, furthermore, Jesus’ words and actions often seem to feed that ambiguity, more than clarify it.

The evangelist Mark, probably the earliest canonical recorder of the Resurrection, indicates a rather unexpected reaction from the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the announcement that the answer to the question of death is that there is more, and better, life. “Do not be amazed,” says the angel at the vacant tomb. “Jesus has been raised; He is not here. Go tell the others.” An assuring answer, to say the least. And yet, we read next: “So the disciples fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Incidentally, Mark’s original Gospel probably ended on this rather sour note, which also conspicuously fails to include any positive appearance by the resurrected Christ. Only later generations of Christians were able to add the more positive endings of Jesus’ appearance and Commissioning of the 11. These later Christians were, perhaps, as perplexed as I am regarding Mark’s rendering of God’s pedagogical method. With outrageous love, God seems to give to the disciples at the tomb the answer key before they take the final exam. Only, when they open the key, the answers seem blurred, and the disciples, accordingly, disconcerted.

Later evangelists’ accounts confirm both of Mark’s original themes – the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but also the lack of absolute clarity that this definitive answer should have provided for the disciples. Matthew captures the nearly contradictory experiences by recording that the disciples left the tomb “fearful, yet overjoyed.” What kind of an answer produces simultaneous fear and over-abundant joy?

Luke records that the resurrected Jesus appeared to two disciples walking the road to Emmaus, took the time to explain patiently the Scriptures to them, then revealed himself fully in the breaking of the bread. This would have been a good time to hand out the TCEs – right after having the students over for that end-of-semester dinner. But not after He mysteriously vanishes from their sight, which happens in the next verse. John likewise records that Jesus revealed his resurrected self to Mary Magdalene, but when she lovingly moved to embrace him, Jesus commanded, “Do not hold on to me, for I am ascending to my Father and your Father.” Again and again – the astounding and final answer of the Resurrection. Again and again – the disciples’ struggle to wrap their arms around this answer.

It’s hard to fault God, generally speaking, and in this particular instance, God appears to have provided as satisfactory an answer to our death as we could hope for. So why all the uncertainty and fear, laced throughout our greatest hope? Perhaps because what we hope for – nothing short of our eventual resurrection and divinization and union with God – is more than our human capacity currently allows us to understand?

That is to suggest, the source of the confusion might lie in the students’, rather than the teacher’s, limitations. But that takes all the fun out of TCEs.

Father Lou DelFra is the director of Bible studies in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at

[email protected]

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