One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is the progression through the liturgical seasons. Right now, of course, we're in Easter. Being that the resurrection of Christ is the center of our faith, there's A LOT to think about this season, but one of the things I have been prompted to think about by the readings lately has been the importance of relationship in conversion. We recognize the Risen Lord not by theology or logic or signs, but by daring to engage in a relationship with Him.
One of the first readings this season (John 20: 11-18) depicts Mary Magdelene encountering Jesus at His tomb. He's supposed to be wrapped up in his burial cloths, peacefully decomposing behind the giant stone at the entrance of his tomb, but when she gets there, Jesus' body is nowhere to be found. As she sits there weeping, Jesus appears to her and asks her why she is crying. Mary, oblivious that she is speaking to her Lord, explains her situation and even asks Him if He knows where Jesus' body is. In fact, Luke tells us that Mary thought she was talking to the gardner. All the prophecy about Jesus rising from the dead, His own words, the empty tomb, the faith of her companions who ran to spread the news...none of it is sufficient to open Mary's eyes to Jesus standing right in front of her. It is not until He speaks her name that she recognizes Him. I imagine it was something in His voice, a tenderness and familiarity as he calls her, that suddenly awakens her to the truth. The history they share together, their friendship, is recalled in this moment and she finally recognizes Jesus, calling out "teacher." It is their relationship that finally reveals what scripture and signs and the testimony of her brothers could not.
A few days later, the mass reading (Luke 24: 13-35) told the story of a few of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Along their route they encounter Jesus, but again, He is unrecognized. They travel for miles together, and as they walk Jesus interprets the scriptures from them. But it doesn't matter how clearly they are taught, they still fail to see Christ. Once again, Christ is revealed through relationship. As they break bread together, an act of fellowship and togetherness, they finally realize the identity of their companion.
In both of these stories, Jesus is present long before even His friends recognize Him. He walks with them, talks with them, consoles them, teaches them, as they continue to search in vain for Him. The scriptures, the marvels, the faith of their companions, is useless in revealing Christ to them. Only a true and intimate relationship allows them to see the presence of Jesus Resurrected.
Things haven't changed much over the last 2,000 years. All of us, sometimes without even realizing it, are seeking Christ. We pour over the scriptures, cling to the testimony of our friends, seek out marvels and miracles to support our faith, engage in discussions and debates about the nature of God and His relationship to the world, but often in vain. These things guide us, teach us, direct us and comfort us...but they do not take the place of a genuine relationship with Christ. Though we grow to know Christ through these means, only a true friendship with God, cultivated through prayer and service to Him, can reveal His presence to us. Similarly, all the apologetics in the world are not a substitute for a ministry of relationship. We can offer "proof" and logic and theology but really, the only lasting evangelization exists in guiding people in to relationship with Jesus by reavealing His presence through their relationship with us. Theology is refuted, the faith of others is suspect, but personally encountering God's goodness and mercy is irrefutable evidence of His presence in the world. There is no substitute in ministry for seeking to be the hands of our merciful God on earth. Jesus tells the crowd in the Bread of Life Discourse "Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled." Lasting faith, the kind that moves us to seek God over and over every day comes not from miracles or reason, but from drawing near enough to Him to be fed, to partake in the Bread of Life, to be nourished by Jesus' presence in our lives. It was true for His followers thousands of years ago and it's true today. How do we allow this to inform our ministry and evangelization, and even our own conversion experiences?