For most people, this Sunday is Easter, and that's all they need to know. For me, it's the celebration for the end of Lent. I'm a Catholic. What can I say?
I have no idea what most people think about Easter. It's the same with all the pseudo-intellectual debates about the historical authenticity for the existence of Jesus. It's like the pissants who try to say Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written his plays. It's one thing to accept that Homer was part of a vast tradition and that's how we got The Iliad and The Odyssey, quite another to say that because there aren't any contemporary depictions of Jesus's life and that the Gospels were composed decades after his death, that we can't trust a word the say. One of the methods to prove that he lived is to acknowledge that no one would willingly base a religion around someone who died like that. If you still don't believe that, you clearly weren't paying attention when The Passion of the Christ was released a decade ago.
Anyway, I believe in Jesus. I'm a Catholic. I titled this post "Greatest Story Ever Told" in part because that's the name of one of the many movies Hollywood made about Jesus half a century ago, and I absolutely believe that the statement is true. I believe because I believe the story. I don't believe fiction is true, and I don't believe that Jesus is fiction.
I've just watched The Gospel of John, a pretty straight cinematic adaptation starring Henry Ian Cusick, narrated by Christopher Plummer. The Gospel of John itself has always been my favorite, the most distinctive and literary of the Gospels, and in fact is probably my first real taste of great literature. Whoever wrote it was the last of the evangelists to complete a Gospel, and as such completed it long after the Crucifixion, which we commemorate in two days on Good Friday. Watching John, I couldn't help but be reminded that Jesus had to exist because no one would have made up such a contradictory personality, someone who did the water-into-wine as his first miracle, who was smart enough to engender himself to mass crowds but not to the point where they worshiped him, because he could only confront and provoke authorities so much. He had a schedule to keep, points to emphasize, an impression that was crucial to making sure his life meant something when he was finally executed. Above all else, he was just someone telling the establishment that it was doing everything wrong.
After his death, Jesus didn't just go away. Catholics celebrate Palm Sunday the week before Easter, his greatest moment of triumph, a perfectly giddy experience in which he allowed himself to be paraded through the streets, which would be duplicated on the way to Golgotha under much different circumstances. If such a moment was possible, and for his enemies to still have a relatively easy time seeing him die, then the truth would always be a difficult thing to celebrate. His disciples managed to keep the faith. They spread the word. They endured persecution.
If all that we know today were simply because Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, that would still leave several centuries to account for, and an odd way to exist for early converts. It's true that most religions exist in this way, but Jesus was an essentially selfless individual preaching a selfless message. Being the Son of God, he had a unique image, and the Resurrection was an equally sensational act. Yet in the letters of Paul, it's not the life of Jesus that is the thrust of the argument but rather the message. Paul is the earliest surviving record of early Christian devotion, and in point of fact wrote his letters because he was simply trying to get the message across to people who often had a hard time getting it.
Plenty of people condemn Christianity for the things it's done over the years, and plenty of people have apologized for it by saying the Church is run by imperfect humans. That's neither here nor there. I'm not here to talk about the Church. I'm here to talk about Jesus. The reason I'm a Catholic is because I think it's silly to worry about the details. If you worry about the details, you might as well admit that you don't care about what you profess to believe. This is a matter of faith not because Jesus is a work of elaborate fiction, but because I still believe that we can embody his ideals, his message.
If you want to worry about details, worry about the message, not because you're condemned to Hell if you reject it but that you're probably not a very good person if you do. I'm not debating matters of morality here. I'm not debating current social topics. I'm talking basic human decency. Jesus went around talking about these things. He was called the Messiah because there was a deep belief that humanity needed rescuing, and we still do. Except the difference before and after Jesus is that the whole point of his sacrifice was that we were forgiven. That's the act of an omniscient being. That's the act of someone who has seen everything, even lived it for some three decades, and by "everything" I mean everything, what happened and what's happening and what will happen. Compassion is an act of love. So's sacrifice.
The idea that God came down here with the rest of us, what he did with that time, and what he accomplished, it destroys all cynicism. It's a tangible sign that whatever we're here to accomplish, no matter how random and meaningless it can sometimes seem, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that nature exists in perfect balance. Balance is achieved through delicate design, an intelligent design.
To me, religion is a way to focus the lens of science, and the only religion I know is Catholicism. Two thousand years later, Jesus still has vital meaning. It's the greatest story ever told. That's what I'll be thinking on Sunday.