In his recent book on papal infallibility, "Power and the Papacy," author Robert McClory states: "The search for infallibility is in its roots a search for confidence -- quest for certainty about matters of ultimate significance. In that sense, infallibility is not limited to Roman Catholics or to the Christian faith. The search for certainty is as universal as religion."

Presuming McClory's insight is correct, why was the early Christian community able to live with more uncertainty and ambiguity than we later Christians care to cope with? Look, for instance, at the staggering events which Jesus predicts in Sunday's Gospel (Mk 13:24-32). His followers can expect "trials of every sort, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not shed its light, stars will fall out of the skies, and the heavenly hosts will be shaken. Then people will see the so of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory."

Nothing more earth-shaking could happen in anyone's life. Yet though Jesus promises that "this generation will not pass away until all these things take place," He ends His predictions with the discomforting remark: "As to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father."

Coming back

The inability to pinpoint Jesus' triumphal return (the "Parousia") is especially significant to the authors of the Christian Scriptures because the Lord's first disciples thought it was imminent, something we don't even think about today. Almost 2,000 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, we've stopped worrying about the end of the world.

Remembering the high school teacher who frequently stepped out of our classroom with the warning, "You'd better be good! I'll only be gone for a minute!" then never came back until the period was over, Jesus' two-millennium delay has convinced us He's not coming back any time soon. Followers of Jesus have no more certainty than anyone else about the end of the world. Christians live their lives in the midst of many of the same questions and ambiguities that all humans experience.

Yet often, when it comes to God breaking into our lives to save us, our Sacred Authors are conspicuously indefinite. In the first reading (Dan 12:1-3), Daniel simply keeps repeating "at that time" when he's referring to Yahweh's saving intervention. "At that time, there shall arise Michael....At that time, your people shall escape." The author could never have been sued for breach of promise. But, just as in the Gospel passage, no one seems to be worried about an exact date.

One with us

Perhaps the key to understanding biblical people's ability to live with uncertainty can be found in the second reading (Heb 10:11-14,18). Jesus (and Yahweh before Him) has already done the one thing which gives us tremendous security and certainty: He's set up a relationship with us. In the Jewish symbolism of the Hebrews author and his community, Jesus has become one with us by becoming our priest.

We must not confuse Christian priests with Jewish priests. For the Christian authors of Scripture, the concept of "priest" refers only to the Jewish priesthood. It's that priesthood which Jesus brings to perfection. Then, because our own personal death and resurrection make us one with Him, it's that priesthood which He shares with all His followers.

Earlier in his work, the author of Hebrews showed how Jesus' offering of Himself for us proves He's one of us. Now he goes one step further. Jesus' sacrifice wipes out every trace of our sins. That which could keep us from being one with Him and the Father is completely obliterated. What else was there to worry about? Eternity begins right here and now -- at the moment we start our relationship with Jesus.

No wonder our ancestors in the faith had such great confidence and certainty. They only had to look at Jesus and their relationship with Him to find it. Maybe our sometimes inordinate desire for infallibility has its roots in a faith that's more concerned about dogmas, rules and regulations than it is about relationships, a faith which early Christians never would have understood or even recognized.

(11-13-97)