Reflection for the Feast of Philip and James, 3rd May 2017
1 Corinthians 15: 1-8; Psalm 18; John 14: 6-14
“I have seen him.” “I have heard of him.” “I know him.” Which of these best describes my encounter with Jesus?
Today is the Feast Day of the apostles Philip and of James. Both of these men saw Jesus. Philip was with Jesus at the Last Supper, as we heard in the Gospel. And in the epistle we heard that Jesus “appeared to James” (1 Corinthians 15: 7). And yet seeing is apparently not always deep knowing, for Jesus says to Phillip his close companion, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know me?” And then these mysterious words: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
It takes a divine disclosure to see in the man Jesus the invisible Father of all. To recognize Jesus as Lord in this way we need graced seeing. Jesus manifests himself to us, in the way and time that He chooses. Paul emphasizes the divine initiative in his recounting of Jesus’s resurrection appearances. “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve . . . he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters . . . he appeared to James, then to all the apostles . . . he appeared also to me.”
What, then, of us who have not seen, but have heard? We have the message, originally oral, then written, upon which our faith depends: Christ died for our sins, and now lives forever. But just as with the graced seeing, we need a graced hearing in order to truly believe it. Otherwise, the message will be for us nothing more than a superstitious rumour.
This resurrection is the master plot twist of God’s story, the story that makes gathers up and makes sense of all our stories. It was hinted at and foreshadowed in the Hebrew scriptures. But when it burst into history, it came as a surprise and a scandal – and still does. Paul is clear that the resurrection is not his own invention: “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.” This “tradition” – literally a handing on – is startlingly “news” – “good news,” indeed, but definitely “news.”
The resurrection is historical: Paul was writing to the Corinthians in the early 50s – a bare twenty years after Jesus’s death; some of the eyewitnesses, he claims, are still alive. (We might want to compare a historical figure like Pedro Arrupe; some of us have met people who worked alongside him.) And yet the resurrection is also above history. The risen Jesus not only did and said the things recorded in the Gospels: he still acts, he still speaks today. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it in beautiful words: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
May I use less beautiful words: Jesus is real, He does stuff – and we cannot know what he will do next. Where have I seen that human face that still looks upon us, felt those human hands that still touch us, heard that human voice that still speaks to us, felt those human arms that still embrace us. Where – in word, sacrament, world, my neighbour – did I see him, hear him? How will he make himself known to me?