Let us say, dear reader, that for the sake of argument, you are a person of faith who had decided to pray for an intention that is very close to your heart. Maybe it’s something silly, like that boy asking you to prom or that you’d find your lost wallet. Maybe it’s serious, the kind of serious that makes doctors ask to talk to you in person instead of over the phone, the kind of serious that your life or your stability or your marriage depends on. You begin to say a novena. You ask for a rose, or for a rosary to be turned to gold, or for a holy card of St. Jude to cross your path. You have faith, because you’ve heard a thousand stories of roses and rosaries and cards turning up for people, heard of miraculous healings and fortunate fixes and coincidences that can only be the result of the interference of God or a saint. You know you’ll be one of them, too. That is what faith is about, after all. There’s no selfishness here, no desire to be one of the famous stories that people write about. You are in honest pain, and in honest faith you make your requests known to God. For nine days, you beg with your whole heart and soul. And on the last day…
There’s also nothing on the next day, and the next, and the next. The situation doesn’t change, or perhaps gets worse. You are heartbroken. You feel as if the saints have betrayed you. You may even lose trust in God Himself. This was important, and He let you down! He seems to be OK with your life being ruined, with you suffering, with you being in pain. Do you want to leave? Should you?
I’ve been in this situation before. I am in this situation now. I used to pray novenas and I used to get every sign promised, from yellow roses to the smell of roses to even stronger, more mystical consolations, all of which were intense and edifying, and all of which eventually ended. It has been years now since my last rose. It has been years without a concrete sign, and sometimes, I begin to doubt my faith, even in the face of all the signs of the past and all the stories that I have read.
This, my dear friends, is the great struggle of faith. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the situations in our lives that make us lose faith. It is the lack of response from God that chips away at us, the seeming silence of the saints whose novenas supposedly “never fail” but, in this case, and in many thousands of others, do. This is the lonely cry of David, wondering why God has abandoned His child. This is the danger of basing our faith on signs.
Now, you’ve heard this before, possibly from me. It is only human to look for proof, especially for proof of those things that we cannot directly see, like God’s providence or the graces of the praying saints. We can have the roses and rosaries and cards sometimes. But they are not our faith. They cannot be the cornerstone of who we are as Catholics. And, not to be preachy, but that cornerstone can only be Christ, the Christ of Matthew 12:38-40.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” Jesus replied, “A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth…”
I don’t know about you, but this passage comforts me whenever I storm heaven with prayer and get nothing from it. Many people say this is about the Resurrection, and they’re right. But those people also forget what happened in the days before the Resurrection, which is what makes this passage so comforting. In those days, Christ was betrayed, abandoned, tortured, mocked, mutilated, and murdered. He was buried hastily, still filthy, in someone else’s tomb. He died.
We skip past that part. We think about how sin hurt Jesus, and then move right over to how He rose from the dead. We skip past the part where His life ended, where His ministry failed, where He lay naked and exposed with all the signs of torture evident on His work-worn body, where His mother and friends wept on the hill of Golgotha while His blood soaked their aching knees and dripped onto their tearstained faces.
Where were the roses for Christ? Where were the signs for him of anything except failure, filth, and decay? The answer is that He simply did not need them. Even without signs, and in the face of such crushing despair, faith remained. We know that Jesus had faith that He would rise, even as He was dying. It was that same faith that kindled in the heart of the pagan centurion of Mark 15:39.
And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
The centurion could not see the torn temple veil, nor the people rising from the graves. At most, he saw the darkness, the mourners, and the filthy corpse: hardly a glorious miracle or holy consolation! But here, he saw faith. Through the quiet witness of Christ’s death, he came to believe, and became St. Longinus, who himself converted many by preaching and by his martyrdom. Like him, we may not always see signs and wonders. The greatest sign we have is Christ Himself, who is sometimes quiet, sometimes tortured, sometimes dead. We are called to be like Him. We are called to be signs ourselves. St. Paul writes, in his second letter to the Corinthians:
“For we are to God the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one, we are an odor of death and demise; to the other, a fragrance that brings life”
We give our best witness to God when we go beyond signs and wonders. When we don’t think about proofs, and we simply focus on living as Christ lived and dying as He died, we can do greater things than simply causing a sign to appear. When we suffer with faith, we don’t need proof anymore. We are proof. Maybe, when God does not answer your never-failing novena, He is calling you to something even greater than flowers or beads. Roses wilt, and rosaries can be broken, but the gift of faith is permanent and contagious, strengthening not only you, but everyone around you, especially when you have faith through your suffering. Through suffering, we can be the sweet aroma of life, stronger than that of any rose, to those who are dead in sin. And they can be that aroma to those around them, and then to those around them, until the whole world is a bouquet of faith, hope, and charity, and each a man a gift to his fellow man and to his creator.
We are called to have faith, my friends. We are called to have faith without flowers, faith without consolation, and, at times, faith without hope, at least hope of earthly relief. What we are called to do is endure, through sorrow, with faith and hope in the final resurrection and the justice of God. We are called to live without signs and without wonders. We are called to be the signs of the reality of the death and Resurrection of Christ, and live in such a way that the faithless can look at us and say that truly, Jesus Christ is the Son of God.