A friend of mine is fond of saying: "You know, it is easier for me to believe in God, in a supernatural world beyond our own, in a world of spirit, and even in the physical resurrection, than it is for me to believe that anything really new will ever happen to me!"
This is true for most of us. For most adults, there comes a day when, consciously or unconsciously, we are so overwhelmed by our own mortality, inadequacies, and limits that we become incapable of ever again being surprised by the possibility of newness in our own lives. We give up on the hope of genuine change for ourselves and resign ourselves to our addictions, bad habits, bitterness, jealousies, and mediocrity. Much as we might like things to be different, we accept that nothing is ever going to profoundly change.
When we feel this way we are succumbing to religious despair. In the past, we tended to confuse despair with that pathology that expresses itself in clinical depression and suicide.
In fact, often times, suicide was explicitly called the sin of despair and the Church not infrequently would not allow its victim burial within a Christian cemetery.
Today, fortunately, we have a better understanding of the dynamics of suicide, namely, as a terminal illness no more willed by its victim than would be a death by cancer, stroke, or heart attack. Suicide, most times, is not despair. Despair has a different face, a more subtle one. What does it look like?
I despair when I no longer believe in the power of the resurrection in this world. Concretely this means that I despair when I no longer believe in the power of God to radically affect my life and to make old things within me young and new again. Normally despair is not expressed in an espoused atheism, in a refusal to go to church, or in arguments against the resurrection of Jesus.
Real despair expresses itself this way: "I'm old enough to have seen life. I know how things work. I know how people are and I know how I am. Nothing is ever going change. This is the way things are, this is the way things have always been, and this is the way things will always be. Nothing new or surprising is ever going to happen, especially to me. I know the limits of life. Don't tell me about new possibilities!"
The real issue of faith for us is often not so much believing in God and in the resurrection of the body after death, as it is in believing in the possibilities of God bringing about resurrection and newness into our lives right now.
We are not new in this attitude. Jesus' first followers already had the same doubts. For example, in Jesus' conversation with Martha, just before he restores her brother, Lazarus, to life, we see how even for the original disciples it was easier to believe in the power of God to raise up bodies on the last day than it was to believe that God can raise up what is dead right now. When Jesus is confronted with the reality of Lazarus' death, he says to Martha: "Your brother will rise again." For her part, she replies: "I know that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day." She might just as easily have added, since this is implied, "but I have grave doubts about any possibilities for new life on this particular day. Bravo for resurrection on the last day, but today, here and now, death reigns!"
Jesus answers her by saying: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live" (John 11:23-25). Given what is implied in his answer, he too might have added the words: "The resurrection is not only about your body being raised up at the end of time. It is also, and sometimes especially, about being raised from the many seemingly hopeless tombs within which you so often find yourself entrapped. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that there is not a grave of any kind that can hold you. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that nothing is impossible for God and, thus, impossible for you either - even today, even right here and now!"
The message of the resurrection is that, no matter how bitter the death, all life can be raised back up after its defeat, its crucifixion. To believe in the resurrection is not just to believe in resurrected bodies at the end of time, but to believe that no grave can hold us, on either side of eternity.
This article first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic.'