How do the Apostles miss it? Maybe you have had one of those moments where someone really important to you was with you in a really important moment, but they were not paying attention. My mother still gives my father a hard time about how he was distracted by an IU basketball game while their first child (me!) was being born. (I seem to recall that IU was in something called the “Final Four” – but I don’t know anything about basketball.) That is more or less what is going on here. Our Lord is baring his soul to the Apostles, telling them about the coming culmination of His life and ministry on earth, how He is going to be tortured, executed, and then rise from the dead! And they’re watching basketball. They do not get it.
Instead of watching Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers, they are arguing about who is the most important. Why don’t they get it? What is keeping them from honing in on our Lord’s critical message? St. Mark tells us the answer, “[T]hey did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.”
It makes sense that the Apostles did not understand what the Lord was telling them. They were not expecting a Messiah who would suffer and die. They had been told He would restore the Kingdom of Israel – raise an army and expel the Romans, restoring the Jewish kingdom. All the time that they are going around Galilee, seeing the Lord heal the sick and cast out demons, listening to His teaching, that whole time they are thinking to themselves – “Okay, at some point, He’s going to stop with this “nice” stuff and get down to business.” But He doesn’t. So when Christ tells them that instead of raising an army and expelling the Romans, He is going to suffer and die, they really do not get it.
We could sit here and rag on the Apostles, but we all do the same thing. We too have expectations that our Lord does not fulfill. We expect that He is going to swoop in and take away all of our suffering and pain. But people still get sick, they still die, we still lose our savings on medical bills or profligate children, and suffering still exists in the world. Jesus does not really fulfill our expectations either.
This isn’t the Apostles’ problem, though. That they do not comprehend the Lord’s teaching is understandable. Where they really run into trouble is when they fail to ask the Lord why. He is right there – all they have to do is say, “Sorry, but we’re not sure what you’re talking about!” But they don’t, because they are afraid.
That same fear can permeate our own hearts. Faced with our own missed expectations of what Christ ought to do for us, or simply confused or uninformed about God’s place in what is going on in the world, we can also be afraid to question the Lord.
Many of us were taught that to doubt God is a sin. That is true. However, we also have to realize that feelings and emotions can never be sins. Sin consists in an act of the will – in a choice that you have made. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt” (Apologia pro vita sua, chapter 5). Those feelings of doubt, or difficulties, are a normal part of a life of faith, whether we are young or old.
When we are faced with a feeling of doubt – in Newman’s terms, a difficulty – we have the choice of what we are going to do to resolve that difficulty. God encourages us to ask questions. We heard in the letter of James today, “You do not possess because you do not ask.” Many of us do not possess knowledge about God and His work in our lives simply because we do not ask. So how do we work up the courage to ask God and the Church these difficult questions?
Christ tells us in the Gospel today that we must become like children. Kids love to ask questions. Whenever I visit the children in our parish school, they always have great questions. Sometimes they will ask about what happens at Mass, things that are so subtle that you never would have imagined that a seven year-old could have noticed. Children are not afraid to ask questions about things that embarrass us adults. We have to train them not to ask about politics, about how old an adult is, or about whether a lady is pregnant. These are conventions in our society – perhaps good ones – but they do not come naturally to children. Kids are not embarrassed to ask questions.
Often times I can tell that people think they are being bad Catholics when they ask why the Church teaches one thing or another. But that is the furthest thing from the truth! God wants us to ask questions. If we do not ask questions, we will never grow in knowledge of Him and His Church, and you cannot love someone that you do not know.
We ask God questions first of all in prayer. Our prayer should be honest. When we experience difficulties in faith, we need to come to the Lord with honesty and tell Him about why we are struggling. But that is just the first step. We also need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us an increase of His gifts. We particularly need the gift of understanding, which helps us to see how everything that happens in our lives relates to God’s providence, His loving plan for us. We also need the gift of knowledge, which helps us to see things from God’s perspective, to see God’s greatness and the depths of His love for us.
Just praying about our difficulties will not be enough, though. God gave you a brain and He wants you to use it! There is an incredible amount of resources available at your fingertips. The formed.org website has videos on almost every topic imaginable. Another great resource is the Catholic Answers website. You can find answers there to almost every question conceivable, and if your question has not already been answered, you can ask someone with a lot of education and training in how to understand the Faith, as well as find a community of others who are seeking the Truth.
For many people, it is easier to ask someone they do not know well about their difficulties with the Faith. Whenever I am traveling I encounter people who have always wanted to ask a question but did not want to talk to their friends, fellow church members, or parish priest because they feel like they will be judged. So if you prefer the anonymity of the internet, and that helps you get the answers you need, then that’s great. I’m an introvert, so I get that.
But I also want to be clear that I am not in any way threatened or insulted when people have questions that they need to ask. I actually really enjoy the challenge of getting to express the Church’s perennial teaching in new and interesting ways. That’s why I carve out a pretty significant amount of time from my schedule to help teach and simply to be present with those who are in the process of entering the Catholic Church (either through our RCIA classes or even one-on-one). I love answering their questions and guiding them along that journey of faith. That’s also why I spend time with the young people of our parish, who have less of our adult inhibitions about asking questions.
The need to ask questions is also part of why we are inviting – as I mentioned two weeks ago – those who want to grow in their friendship with the Lord to schedule a chat with our new Director of Evangelization, Attila Valentiny. He is another resource to help you in that exploration of the Lord’s plan for you. It’s not too late to do that – you can find the cards with the information on how to sign up in the vestibules, or you could call him at the parish office.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to be willing to ask questions. The Apostles missed out on something really big because of their fears. Just as Christ opened His heart to them by telling them the most intimate details of His life, so too does He desire to open His heart to you. Become like a little child, and do not be afraid to ask Him why.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXV Sunday through the year, A.D. MMXVIII