In 1996 my mother was diagnosed with cancer. In the spring of that year I flew home to Texas to tend to her and to see for myself what the face of cancer looked like. My brother picked me up at the airport and drove me to her apartment. When we walked in the first thing we noticed was a beautiful floral aroma—more deliciously fragrant than any expensive perfume I have ever smelled. We both asked her if she was burning a candle. She said no. I then asked her if she had fresh potpourri in the house. She said no. She waited for my brother to leave before telling me the truth—knowing that he wouldn’t believe her. She said that she had noticed the odor, too, for the last week. She said it was with her during the chaos of her diagnosis and her brief hospital stay. She looked straight at me and said, “You’ve just met my angel.” And, for whatever reason, I knew it to be true. I can’t tell you why. But I never doubted it. She said that whenever she smelled that glorious bouquet she knew her angel was present and she knew things would be okay.
Fast forward to December 2001. My mother dies, and Andrew and I drive some of her furniture from Midland to Richmond . We place both her vase of ashes and her bedroom furniture in our guest bedroom. And then it happens. I notice that same fragrant odor each time I walk into the room. At first I can’t believe it to be true. So I try to ignore it. But there it remains. As much as I wanted it to signify my mother’s presence, it frightened me. The scent haunted the air and would not dissipate. For a time, I stopped going into that bedroom. Finally, in mid-January, I confessed to Andrew what was going on with me. I knew he would think I was crazy from grief and wouldn’t believe me. But he was…relieved! He, too, had smelled it, and he, too, had said nothing for fear I would think he was crazy.
Relief, followed by an unarticulated knowledge that my mother’s angel—this beautiful presence, this afterglow of love—was telling us, in essence, that she’d made the trip from Texas with us, and that all was well. The instant Andrew and I acknowledged this presence out loud to one another, it dissipated. And you know what? I didn’t feel sad. I felt affirmed. Affirmed in my faith that mom had escaped the suffering of her disease and was with God. What a privilege—to experience the Holy Spirit in a tangible, sensual way. To know it not as an abstraction but as a thing inhaled, inspired.
This is the closest I have come to knowing what we in the 21st century, can never know, but only suppose: what it was to be a disciple. What it was to be one of those dozen or so impassioned, stunned and lucky men and women within Jesus’ inner circle. What it was to walk the earth with God. To see him crucified and then to talk with him after he was resurrected from the dead. You may believe their stories, but can you imagine them?
Ask yourself this: Have you been in a situation in which someone told you a remarkable story or described an unbelievable incident and you said, half-believing, half-doubting, “I’d really have to see that for myself, thank you.” Of course the two towers in New York come to mind. It was not to be believed. It is not to be believed. Even now, a year and a half after the initial horror, there is a part of the brain that refuses what the eyes have seen a thousand times on CNN.
So it is throughout his gospel, John demonstrates that seeing is not believing. Long stretches of John are taken up with people—the Pharisees, mostly—arguing about what they have seen Jesus do, but failing to believe. Only the disciple John believes that Jesus has risen from the dead. The other disciples—all of them, not just poor Thomas—don’t believe his or Mary Magdalene’s verbal witness. They have to see for themselves. In this respect, they are you and me.
What do we believe, we who are two millennia removed from that bedraggled gang who broke bread with the man? Or, more to the point, why do we believe? For some the answer is as easy as family tradition. They believe because their parents believed, and because their parents before them believed, and so on. They believe because they have never really been presented with a reason not to believe. Others are aware of the presence of Christ in their lives through the workings of the Holy Spirit. They feel it acutely—in the sound of song, in the smell of a garden. I know you feel God because I see it in your face as you kneel at the altar rail to receive communion. I can see the Holy Spirit welling up in your eyes. I can see that lump in your throat. You feel God—feel healed, feel saved.
In a way, this story bridges the gap between those who believe unquestioningly, and those who say, in the Enlightenment tradition, “Show me.” The story achieves this by focusing not on doubt and skepticism, but on the grounds of faith, the miracle of faith, the curing of unbelief. The miracle is that the risen Jesus promises the disciples that belief will not be limited to those whose faith is grounded in sight, in the first-hand account. Belief will not belong only to those hanging around Golgotha in the spring of 30 A.D. It will also belong to those who are removed from the divine fact of the resurrection by space and time. It will belong to the likes of us, who, though deprived of the actual sight of the resurrection, are heirs to the truth it reveals. It brings us to the kind of belief Paul describes in his Letter to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).
This is why I think that our faith in Jesus is a miracle because believing in Jesus is, humanly speaking, an impossible thing. Mountaintop experiences, like mine, are wonderful, but most of us spend most of our time in the valley. The miracle of Jesus is that he came to walk among us so he would know those valley experiences first hand. He came to see so he would believe our pain, our suffering, our adversity. This is why faith thrives when there is no hope but hope in God. Let us pray for your miracle of faith to be a tangible, visual, sensual experience. You must keep your heart, mind and soul free of fear and skepticism so the Holy Spirit can infiltrate your senses.