St. Matthew decides to end his gospel in what seems at first to be a most unsatisfactory way. After describing a newly resurrected Christ as commissioning the disciples to go demonstrate the life of God to everybody everywhere, he quotes Christ as saying,
"And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
That's the last sentence. The end. No explanations for the suffering they would endure. No further answered questions to bolster their confidence in the mission they'd just been assigned. Not even a secret code or formula to make their coming experiences easier than their pagan counterparts. The last words Matthew writes aren't merely theological. They're experiential.
I spoke to a woman this past weekend who, two years ago, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I remember when she found out. I remember references to a baseball sized tumor, other lesions and a pervasive sense of fear for her and her family. I remember her tears at the office as she told us. Though feeling "petrified", she opted to undergo chemo and to take every step she knew to take.
She experienced numerous awe-inspiring moments through the course of her treatment. But the one she shared with me Saturday was particularly amazing. When she was at her worst (apparently the treatments are cumulative, and by the sixth the suffering was at its peak), she had the very real, tangible sense of Christ being with her. She conceded that her head was a bit fuzzy from the medications that day, but went on to describe her sitting in her misery and suddenly mindful that Christ was at her side.
And not the blue-eyed, VO5 Hot Oil Jesus depicted in the painting we all had hung in our childhood kitchens. She described him as just as bald as she was, with a chemo port oozing in his chest.
Not just there observing her, but with her. Fused to her suffering with his own.
She didn't quote him. She didn't share with me any of his promises about how much longer the pain would last, or what "lesson" she was supposed to be learning. Apparently there were no words. Just Christ the fellow chemo-patient, with her always, even to the end of the age.
After telling me this, her eyes glossy and wistful, she said, "I miss that. I really do." She scrunched her face up so as to acknowledge first how untrue that probably seemed. Who legitimately misses hell? But I knew she meant it. She missed the profoundly real, wordless presence. The withness, even though it occurred in the midst of great suffering.
We come to a point where our faith is well informed, and yet vacant. Many of us assume this means we've learned what we can about our faith, and have grown past it somehow. We refer to ourselves as "off track" or having "lost our fire". But this is because without Matthew's last sentence, the other words are just history to be learned and then shelved. The informing part of our faith is similar to how the gospel starts and carries on for a time. We feast on insights and inspiration. Eventually, however, when the words end, it's that last sentence that we live on. It's the last one we can't live without.
The presence of Christ is an unearned reality. Underneath our preoccupations, underneath our complicated steps to "find God", even under our reams of Biblical savvy, Christ waits for us to wake up to the fusion that already is. Suffering is a great tuner, as my friend would tell you. But the recognition that we're unaware and even skeptical is enough to begin. When we've taken in the story, we're not just commissioned to tell it. We are then invited to actually participate in it with the Author.