While I was out-of-state over the Christmas holiday, I went to Mass at a parish not my own. The thing about Mass somewhere new is that even though the building and the presider and the music and the liturgical details and the people around you are completely unknown to you, the Mass is the Mass, and that is comforting. You are home spiritually even though you aren’t home geographically. I’ve said this before, but I felt it anew: I love going to Mass somewhere else. It’s like a refresher course for faith.
The pastor of the church I visited mentioned in his homily, and I repeat it with gratitude, that one thing he had learned in all his years on this earth was that if he fell down, as inevitably we all do, he knew that God would lift him up. Heads around me nodded. They were mostly older heads. We could all think of times we had fallen down, in failure, in despondency, in grief, in the soul’s desert, in anger, in sin. Yet we were all at Mass on this windy morning. At some point in our lives, we had all experienced being lifted up. And this grace had been given to us more than once.
I looked around the church. As is common in Catholic churches, the images of the Stations of the Cross wound their way around the walls, depicting from one to 14 the heart-wrenching journey of Good Friday. As I thought about the homily, I realized that three of the stations show Jesus falling down. After the first two falls, Jesus is lifted up by people who love him: his mother Mary, a follower named Simon of Cyrene, a compassionate Veronica who wipes his face, and the women of Jerusalem. After the third fall, Jesus is crucified. Then he dies, the ultimate fall. Again the people who love him are present, and lay him in his tomb. He falls down; he is lifted up. On Easter, Jesus is lifted back to life in the mystery of the Resurrection. Forty days later, he is literally lifted up in the Ascension. The times Jesus falls and is subsequently lifted up are part of his human story. Jesus as brother has been one of us; he has dwelt among us.
The cycle of falling down and being lifted up is the story of humanity. Our own experiences are usually not as spectacular or as horrific as the life of Jesus, but we know where he has been. We have been there, too. Whether we fall short or fall down, we know what it’s like to find ourselves on the ground, flat on our faces. Everything is wrong. We have failed; we have messed up; we have burnt out. And then, whether we call it God or grit, we are lifted up, set back up on our own two feet, a little wiser, a little more resilient.
Often God lifts us up through the help of others, as we see in the simple gestures of mercy that Simon or Veronica did for Jesus. It may be our loved ones who care deeply about us, or it may be a stranger. We fall down, and someone reaches out to us. It may take a few tries, but in the end, we are lifted up. If we look carefully, we may see the face of God.
Philosophers and skeptics have long debated the methods for proving or disproving the existence of God. Syllogisms and treatises fill scholarly books. To my simple mind, there is a simple answer, found in the first letter of John: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love definitely exists. To borrow a phrase, the proof of God’s pudding is in the loving. In my life I have found that what lifts me up is love. Wherever I see love, I see God. Whenever I give love, I feel God. However I know love, I sense God. That’s all the proof I can expect. I find it is enough.