In his new book entitled Jesus the way, the truth and the life – the author, Marcellino D’Ambrosio explained what changed his motivation for life from looking to pursue a life as a rock musician to becoming a theologian. He says: for the first 16 years of my life, I was a yawning Christian. It would never have occurred to me to stop believing in Christ, but to get excited about him would have never occurred to me either!… the stage got me excited. The promise of a record deal got me excited. Going to church, on the other hand, was an obligation, a weekly interruption of my ordinary, real life. That state of affairs was interrupted by two friends of mine whose lives had been turned upside down by an encounter they claimed to have had with Jesus. Both had stopped using drugs. That impressed me. Both exuded a new excitement, a deep peace, and a quiet joy. That impressed me even more.
The entire book is phenomenal and well worth a read (no I’m not getting a commission), but those first words have really remained with me since I first read it a few months ago. The thing that captured this man’s attention and helped transform his life was witnessing the impact that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ had on other people. When we know Him – when we love Him – when that relationship changes our lives in a genuine, authentic way — that is what is the most important thing for us in our journey of faith… and that’s the most important thing in being able to share this Good news with others. It’s something that’s contagious that we don’t mind catching or spreading- the joy of Christ.
This is something St. Paul learns in this encounter with the people of Athens in the first reading today. Paul was a brilliant man, a gifted speaker, someone who was able to debate and argue with the best minds. Arriving in Athens and seeing these pagans who believe in multiple gods, have an altar dedicated “to an unknown god” – he attempts to spin that into an intellectual argument to win converts to Christ. And what happened? It was a failure. The people are completely indifferent. Unlike previous preachings where people are either won over and convert themselves or attempt to stone Paul to death – the reaction at Athens was… meh.
It reminded me of something on campus: A couple years ago a student on campus came into a discussion group on faith and spirituality that was a weekly event sponsored by the religion department on campus. He came into the first meeting with a t-shirt with the words “God is dead” on it. Having majored in Philosophy in college, I knew this quote was from Friedrich Nietzsche – who’s philosophical works have had a profound impact in the last two centuries. The man’s philosophy is a bit more complex than those three words – but, I doubted this student was looking to have a discussion on that. The kid wearing it was looking for a reaction and got it from many people in the room. It was truly a Holy Spirit moment for me that I just laughed at the whole thing to myself and kept quiet, and just went up to him after the first session saying “I admire you’re wearing that here.” He smirked and said “oh yeah?” And when I said “yeah that’s Nietsche, right?” He kind of gave a shrug of being slightly impressed that I knew that and wasn’t attacking him. And I said I just admired that he actually had a position that he was somewhat passionate about to get a t-shirt and wear it. Honestly he was easier to talk to then the majority of kids who showed up, who were Catholic, who were clearly not practicing their faith and felt guilty that they weren’t as they saw this priest in the room (but not guilty enough to actually do anything about it). This kid you could tell had some pretty strong feelings and opinions, and came every week to this voluntary group the rest of the semester and over the weeks and months. He warmed up to where we could have real authentic conversations there – and when we would bump into each other on campus . At one point in this one meeting where the topic was on human suffering, he shared that his mother was sick with cancer. I saw him after and asked if there was anything I could do, if his mom would want a visit (was never quite sure if they had been Catholic at some point or what the situation was at home, but I explained sometimes when people are sick, whether they are Catholic or not, they like to talk to a priest) which he started to get choked up and was shaking his head “no” as he just mouthed “thank you” and I said I was going to pray for her and for him. He seemed kind of surprised by that, and I just said “I know you think God is dead… I know He’s not… that’s why I’m praying for you and your mom.”
I’m not sure what ever happened with this kid, or his mom… but I’ll never forget that encounter – and the kid always was warm when he would see me on campus – would joke to his friends, how many atheists have a priest as a friend?
What I didn’t tell the young Nietzche admirer was that another famous quote of his kind of gave a clue to this philosophy. Nietzche once said – I will believe in the Redeemer when the Christians look a little more redeemed. When I first heard that quote in college myself, my reaction was- how many people’s lives have been confused by this one philosopher because he never authentically encountered Christianity? It tells us how important the stakes are for each and every one of us who claims to be a follower today.
Particularly as we draw closer to celebrating the Ascension of the Lord and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the focus shifts more on who we are as followers of Jesus, how that makes a difference in our lives and the world around us. Do we look a little more redeemed? Are the lives we’re living inviting people to want to encounter Christ who animates it, gives it life, and joy, and meaning? Are we contagious?