Let’s say you’re very young — four or five years old. You ask a question to your parent that seems like it should have an easy answer: “Why do you have to go to work every day?” (You love your parents, and don’t understand why they don’t want to spend every moment with you!) The parent starts trying to make an explanation: I need to make money. “But why do you need money?” You might ask. Well, so we can survive. “But won’t God provide for our needs? Didn’t Jesus say that?”
And what seemed like a simple question turns into a whirlwind for both sides of the conversation. The child struggles to reconcile these new truths with previous information, while the parent struggles to provide answers that will be factually correct and satisfy the child.
Worse, from the parent’s point of view, some answers may inspire more questions, or open the door to truths that may not be palatable to an immature mind: I work because we need money; God provides for us by making me able to work; I need to work every day because some day I won’t be able to work, either because I’m ill or old enough that I need to prepare for death, which is when I won’t be here at all for you in the flesh. And how does a simple question of “a why do I have to work?” drift inevitably toward thoughts of mortality?
This kind of situation came to mind when I reflected upon the Gospel selection from John from today’s readings. There, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.” The Apostle Philip responds by saying, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”
This causes Christ to reply: How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves.”
For quite a while, after first encountering this passage, I had a bit of a negative feeling toward Philip here. Jesus is making his relationship to the Father known; how could he not see that? I’ve heard that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life so often I don’t even question it; why does Philip? Jesus’ tone here seems a bit exasperated, a bit reprimanding. But as I’ve come closer to the faith, I realize that Philip’s attitude is one I’m much more sympathetic toward.
Put yourself in Saint Philip’s shoes. (Today is the Feast of Saints Philip and James, so it’s especially appropriate.) Jesus has made an amazing proclamation: “I am the way and the truth and the life . . .” Philip’s on board with this! He’s not scoffing. He wants to believe, to understand. He just wants to see . . . something. He may not even know what, exactly. Obviously the Father is willing to reveal himself in the presence of his only begotten Son, as proclaimed in the Transfiguration . . . so God is not unwilling to show more when the time is right. But, in this circumstance, Jesus realized that the lesson would be better proclaimed through his teachings.
Again, I’m reminded of the relationship between the parent and child I opened my reflection with. The child earnestly wants to understand, and is asking a reasonable question, but it’s one that opens up a larger world of questions and answers than the child is possibly ready for.
When I came into the faith, I did so with the (correct) understanding that just about any question I could have – about our beliefs, faiths, approaches, outlooks, etc. – would have an accessible answer. I literally purchased a book called Catholicism for Dummies that taught me the basics. Even if the answer to a big question is “it’s a mystery,” there would no doubt be countless writings that richly delve into that mystery. Questions about the Holy Trinity, Mary, the saints, the Eucharist, original sin . . . all of it has accessible answers.
But when the Apostle Philip asked his question, none of those easy resources existed. Jesus needed to explain himself to his followers both in a way they would understand and in a way they would be able to replicate and impart on others in the future. Praise be to God for the beauty of the Sacred Scripture! For with it, we have a direct link to the teachings of Jesus, and it’s worked with the Church’s Tradition to form the foundation of our faith for millennia.
The Catholic faith rewards questions. The Spirit often works miracles when the faithful try to understand and grow closer to God. You, by reading this very blog, are hopefully growing closer in your understanding of the wonders of God and your own spirituality. Thanks be to Jesus for his answers that have given us so much to reflect and grow on, all these years later . . . and thanks be to the faithful like Saint Philip who were brave enough to ask questions.