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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Falling in Love with Jesus



                                                                                                                                    
 
When our son went to college, my husband and I left our suburban home and moved into a city apartment to be close to him. (How many American parents would do that? I’m not bragging about it, on the contrary I think that we Italians have a problem: For us, our children remain young  forever). In front of our new home a church played the bells every hour from morning to night, pretty much like it happens in Italy. I became nostalgic and went to visit after forty years of almost uninterrupted absence. 
The next day I decided to go to Mass, but I couldn’t concentrate. I spent that Sunday afternoon hour watching the faithful pray. I wondered: Did they believe what they were reciting or were they mindlessly moving their lips? Did they live a pious life? 
During his sermon, the priest said something that sounded very true to me, namely that people believe what they can wrap their mind around. I realized that if I wanted to  find faith I had to do it on my own terms, and at that moment I knew that I wasn’t as indifferent to religion as I had been in the past. Something was happening inside me. 
I used to think of myself as too sophisticated to believe in Jesus. I used to tell people that I was a Buddhist
because it was fashionable, but Buddhism never captured my heart. In the end I had to admit that I was tired of worshiping rationality and trends. I couldn’t get anything else out of my life, but I was longing for more.

So one day I decided to read the gospels.
I had been baptized at birth, but I didn’t know much about my religion. Night after night I read the gospels in bed, feeling curious but detached. I was very judgmental. The poor writing bothered me and I was definitely skeptical about the miracles. It was like reading a fairy-tale whose ending I already knew. 
When I turned the last page I felt puzzled, I wasn’t sure what to do next.I thought I had done my homework, so I went back to my novels.
I’ve been a compulsive reader since I was a teenager, enjoying anything from science fiction to theater scripts and marveling at the ability of authors like Kafka or Marquez to rapture the reader into their metaphysical world. But all of a sudden I couldn’t read novels anymore, I was utterly bored. I was getting nervous, for I couldn’t fall asleep at night without reading. My trips to the library became a laughing matter. I would grab three books at a time, give them a try and bring them back the morning after. I tried erotic novels. I had never found them boring before, but sure enough I couldn’t concentrate on the subject. I started wondering what was wrong with me. 
At the library once again, I decided to approach the essay section. My eyes fell on a couple of books about religion, but I picked something else and browsed through the pages. My attention span was shorter than ever. Suddenly I realized that I was going against my will, resisting my impulse. I had changed and Iwouldn’t acknowledge it. Reading the gospels had put something in motion in my mind and I needed to know more. Just thinking about it I felt the anticipation and the excitement, so I rushed back towards the essay section and chose a few books about Jesus.        

That day and for many days to come I read about him, because I wanted to know who he was, why he died and how Christianity was born. My journey of faith started with this compelling, enthusiastic interest in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. There was no revelation at first, but the study of early Christianity brought me to believe in his resurrection. Something earth-shaking had happened after his death. It took me months of tireless reading to form this opinion, and it was only then that I started to perceive Jesus as someone well known, someone who was present  in my life. The risen Christ had called me, breaking down the barrier of time. Unintentionally I did with him what I had never done before with any living creature: Lowering my defenses I let myself go in a process of identification with whatever it was that his presence implied.

Jesus simply grew on me. I figured out why religious people say that they are in love with him, an idea that sounded so pathetic to me before. I couldn’t think of anything else but him. Jesus was subversive, radical, hermetic. He was merciful with the outsiders and pitiless with the establishment. He was enigmatic, ironic, loving but not sentimental. He died in the most humiliating way to show how much he loved us, so that we could love him back.
In A Marginal Jew, the scholar John P. Meier writes:
“In Roman eyes, Jesus died the ghastly death of slaves and rebels; in Jewish eyes, he fell under the stricture of Deuteronomy: ‘The one hanged (on a tree) is accursed by God.’ To both groups Jesus trial and execution made him marginal in a terrifying and disgusting way. Jesus was a Jew living in a Jewish Palestine directly or indirectly controlled by Romans. In one sense, he belonged to both worlds; in the end, he was ejected from both.”

Yet, two thousand years later, Christianity has spread in many continents and, with over two billions followers, is the largest religion on earth. On average, four books every day are published in the world about Jesus, and no other character in history is the subject of so many interpretations. Popular books come up with imaginative theories that are, nonetheless, based on facts, although these facts may have nothing to do with the real Jesus. Of course they engender a different kind of publication, designed to contradict their points of view. Pretty much the same thing happens among scholars, who constantly argue against each other, of course at a much higher level and about more reliable sources. However, if one reads these reconstructions one after the other, one realizes that many of them are nothing but works of fantasy, on which the authors project their own beliefs. My curiosity about the birth of the Church prompted me to read a lot about the subject, and my faith started to take form.