A couple of years ago, when I was still in seminary, we were assigned to parishes over the summer. I got assigned to a medium sized parish with a couple of resident priests.
I befriended a Jesuit priest. Every night after having dinner, we would enjoy a glass of wine and talk about theology, the Church, and the community. One day, he had lunch with a Jewish rabbi friend of his. He then shares his experience and, after dinner, he asks me, “Jorge, why are you a Christian?” A little taken aback by the question, I see it as a test (seminary does that to you!) So, I think to myself, ‘If I respond that I was baptized a Christian, and that’s the religion that was taught to me, he is going to respond that I can still chose to live any other faith or no specific faith at all for that matter’… So, I try to give a more intellectual answer.
“Well, Father,” I tell him, “it would seem that Christianity has a series of social and moral norms that help build up community, civilization and progress. The notion of conscience, unalienable human dignity…”
He smiles and says, “Buddha and Confucius also offered some norms for the betterment of society and the helping the fellow neighbor. Furthermore, there are a lot of people who don’t even believe in God, secular organizations that do a lot of social work in the world and that do in fact improve it. Why are YOU a Christian?”
A little nervous about not finding the answer, I take a gulp of the wine, hoping to find wisdom in the spirits. “Well, Father, Buddhism, Confucianism, atheism, they don’t believe in God. I DO believe in God.”
He responds, “The Jewish people believe in God. Islam believes in God.” He asks me again, “Why are YOU a Christian?” Feeling completely cornered and not knowing what else to respond, I ask him to give me a couple of days to think about it and I’d get back to him on it.
A Better Answer
I had this question haunting me for months and months, looming in the back of my mind. After some time, I had the blessing to go to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage. There I met Ibrahim, a Palestinian Christian. He lived in the West Bank, and every day he would commute to Israel to work. We became friends, and I invited him for a cup of coffee to get to know him a little bit more.
I ask him, “So, what does your day look like?” He says, “I wake up at 3 a.m. and make my way across the border. Sometimes it takes minutes, many times it takes hours. So, I arrive in Israel, start work, and arrive home late at night.” I ask him if he needs a passport or an ID to cross. “Yes, ” he says yes. He takes it out of his pocket, kind of hiding it so nobody sees what he’s about to show me. He puts it in front of me, and I begin to ask him:
What does this word mean?— That’s my name.
And that word? — That’s my last name.
This one?— That’s my hometown.
What about this one?— He pauses for a second, looks me straight in the eye and says “that word has defined everything that I am. That word has defined his where I can live. That word has defined what my social interactions are. That word has defined where I can and cannot work. That word has been the cause of anger and discrimination toward myself and his children. But for that word, I give my life and shed the last drop of my blood. That word is “Christian.”
After a couple more days of reflecting, I call Father Jake back and I tell him that I think have a better answer for him. “Next time we meet, the wine’s on me! “
When we meet, I tell him:
“Yes, I was baptized into this Faith, to the Christian Faith. Yes, I believe that Christianity has incredible contributions to society.
Yes, I believe in one God, but I believe above all that that God is love. That that God so loved the world that He gave us, He gave me, His only begotten Son (Jn 3:16); that that God-made-man is the way to Father.
That He is the Way when no other way is enough.
That He is the Truth of my existence of being a son of God.
That He is the Life of our life.
And yes, spiritual teachers like Buddha, Confucius, Muhammad have talked about a way, a way to happiness, a way to bliss and Nirvana. But none of them have dared call themselves the Way, except one: The Way, The Truth, and The Life (Jn 14:6). Furthermore, Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and remained with His community of believers. He remained in the spiritual house of “living stones” (1 Pt 2:5), which is His Church, in His true sacramental presence, in His word, in His community, in His ministers. The heart of Jesus keeps beating as strongly in His Church as it was with the apostles.”
Father Jake looks at me. He picks up his glass and says…Now that’s a better answer!
The Teacher Leaves
It’s a very human feeling that whenever we lose a loved one, we immediately think of the last time we saw him. The last words, the last conversation. Also, a very human feeling is when we are in the process of losing that person, we find ourselves with this desire of wanting to follow him or her, with the incapacity of doing so.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus has announced to His apostles that He will be leaving them. This announcement from their teacher, must have stirred up emotions of sadness. Thomas is the first to speak. Lord, we want to go with you, but “we don’t know the way” (Jn 14:5).
What must Jesus have been to Thomas in those two and a half years of learning his teachings about the Word of God, about life, and him assimilating it in his own life, for him to hear that now Jesus is leaving. Thomas wants to follow Jesus, but how? Who was Jesus for him?
Reflecting on Thomas’ experience of the Teacher, I would like to pose the same question to you. It may take you minutes to respond, hours, maybe weeks, months, or years, but try to take it seriously,
Why are YOU a Christian?
Why have you chosen to follow the way of the Christ, the path of the Son of God, God-Made-Man?
Why are you a member of this Spiritual House (1 P 2:5), His Church?
And once you have found the answer, that answer of wisdom, that answer of Truth, I pray that you find the courage also to live it out seriously with conviction, with the knowledge and experience of having known the Teacher.
May Mary show us this path; may she guide our reflection.
May she guide the Word acting in us, that we may find the Way to the Father’s house and walk it.
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