The Power of Witness

When I was a Protestant looking into Catholicism, Carl J. Sommer’s enthralling history of early Christianity, We Look for a Kingdom, really made an impression on me. Sommer discusses many distinctives of the early Christian community such as evangelism (so different from the way my Evangelical church portrayed evangelism in the early church), baptism, prayer, Holy Communion, the hierarchy, synods and ecumenical councils, and the practice of charity which so confounded the pagan society of that era. One passage which really stuck with me came in the final chapter, where Sommer discussed the importance of “witness” in the preaching of the Gospel.

Imagine what must have happened the first time a Christian missionary moved into a pagan community that had not heard of Christ before. The missionary would have explained that Jesus lived in Galilee, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and … rose again from the dead.” His pagan audience would not have been surprised by the story in general, but the specifics would have intrigued them. These events occurred in recent history – when Augustus was emperor and Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea. Who could say when Isis died and came back to life, or when Mithras slayed the bull? But the Christians claimed there were eyewitnesses who saw Jesus dead, then saw him alive again, eating fish just like anyone else.

…The chain of witnesses began with those who had personally seen the risen Christ. We see the beginning of this passing on of the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. In this passage, Paul was careful to indicate the names of as many eyewitnesses as possible.

The one thing paganism could not claim was eyewitnesses. No one could name anyone who was present when Athena was born. In this sense, there was a certain amount of willful playacting involved in pagan religiosity. But Christianity always had its feet firmly planted on the ground. The claims of the eyewitnesses insured that the Christians mingled this worldly reality with their theological speculations.

…The ancient world was full of mythmakers, half-poet and half-philosopher, who could make up charming, moving stories that would become the foundation of new religions. The apostles and their successors were not of that ilk. They refused to make up new stories about Christ. When the Gnostics, the Valentinians, and others tried to do so, it was the apostolic authority of the bishops that prevented Christianity from degenerating into another Greco-Roman cult.

St. Paul’s insistence on the existence of numerous witnesses to the Resurrection bears repeating:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

St. Paul’s point? Literally hundreds of people saw the risen Christ at different times and in different places. If you were inclined to doubt the Resurrection, Paul could give you the names and addresses of many of them. Christian evangelists weren’t asking people to put their faith in a carefully crafted philosophy or embrace yet another life-affirming myth. They were sending inquirers to Broad Street in Bethany to visit folks like Amaziah, son of Remaliah, the skinny, balding potter with five children and as many missing teeth. He would tell you that one morning 20-some years ago when he went for his usual early morning constitutional up the Mount of Olives, he happened to look up and saw a man rising up into the sky. Incredulous, he began running up the path, only to meet Jesus’ apostles, some of whom he knew, coming down the path. Had he started his hike 5 minutes earlier, they told him, he would have heard the proclamation of the angel: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” Amaziah and hundreds of others like him never tired of giving their testimony. After all, they had seen the risen Christ with their own eyes!

Dates, names, places – formidable tools in the arsenal of the 1st-century evangelist. The power of witness is very hard to dismiss….

Fast-forward some 1,900 years and 2,500 miles to a rain-soaked field that the locals call Cova da Iria. Something happened there on October 13, 1917. A Portuguese newspaper described it in these words:

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up, and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: “A miracle! A miracle!

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws—the sun “danced” according to the typical expression of the people.

The crowd had gathered in the field outside the town of Fatima because three children, who claimed to have had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, had said that there would be a miracle accompanying the final appearance of the Virgin on October 13. Not only were pious Catholics in attendance; skeptics and unbelievers came. Reporters were there, photographers were there, almost as if it were the original media event. And as predicted, there was a miracle, now known as the Miracle of the Sun. It was seen not only by the crowds outside of Fatima; people 25 miles away reported seeing it. Skeptics have tried to find ways to explain the miracle as some naturally occurring phenomenon – all the while ignoring the obviously inexplicable fact that this phenomenon was predicted in advancehence the crowd at Cova da Iria. There’s simply no getting around it – some 70,000 people witnessed the miracle which had been prophesied.

As a Protestant, I was vaguely aware of Fatima. I’d never bothered to look into it – Catholic superstition, I assured myself. If you worship Mary and believe that the pope is sinless, you’ll fall for anything. The fact that this putative miracle had occurred within living memory, a mere 41 years before my birth (my maternal grandparents would have been 22 at the time, my paternal grandparents in their 30s) failed to impress me; I knew little about it, except that it was clearly bogus. Yet at the same time, I was 100% opposed to liberal apologies for the “putative miracles” of the Bible. The idea that the feeding of the 5,000 was a “miracle of sharing” offended me. Are you saying that Jesus, the Son of God, couldn’t perform miracles? The views of those who dismissed the Biblical plagues or the parting of the Red Sea, proposing various “natural phenomena” to explain “what actually occurred” were met with nothing but disdain from me. Look, if God can’t perform miracles, He ain’t much of a God. I could certainly understand that atheists had a vested interest in proving that miracles were merely naturally occurring phenomena which mankind has yet to explain scientifically. But when Christians tried to explain away the miracles performed by Jesus, what could that be except a lack of faith? Unlike some Christians, I as an Evangelical believed that God could and did perform miracles in this modern day and age – though if you had asked me to point you towards one, I could only have passed on to you rumors of a friend of a friend of a friend who picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to be an angel (because he mysteriously disappeared), or served up the weak tea of tales such as “…and then the traffic light, against all odds, turned GREEN and I made it to work on time! I tell you, it was a MIRACLE!!” Despite my conviction that miracles could and did occur, I stood with the atheists on Fatima – scientifically explicable, naturally occurring phenomenon plus dumb peasants equals superstition on steroids. Atheist dismissals of the miracle at Fatima explain that the crowds saw what they came to see, an utterly predictable form of mass hysteria. As an Evangelical, I was solidly in the atheist camp on this as a Catholic-miracle-doubting modern skeptic.

Read the newspaper accounts. Peasants were certainly present at Fatima, alongside journalists, M.D.s and Ph.D.s. The crowd did not consist of believers only; unbelievers had come to scoff (which many of them did when the Lady failed to appear at noon, Portuguese time, waiting until the sun was overhead). The Miracle of the Sun was seen by many present, reportedly not by all, but this “saw it/didn’t see it” did not run along the preexisting believer/nonbeliever divisions. And there were those miles away who were clearly not able to be influenced by the crowd, who were not looking for a miracle that day, yet witnessed it. The truth is self-evident.

Tens of thousands of people saw the Miracle of the Sun, a miracle which had been announced in advance by the Woman who appeared to the shepherd children, a Woman who urged the world in the strongest terms to pray and make sacrifices that sinners might turn to Jesus Christ.

Names: Joao da Cunha Vasconcelos, Maria de Capelinha, Dr. Almeida Garrett, Dr. Domingos Coelho, Alfredo da Silva Santos, Joao Vassalo, Alfonso Lopes Vieira, Fr. Ignacio Lorenco, Fr. Manuel Pereira da Silva, and thousands of others. Go to Fatima and ask around!

Date: October 13, 1917, 96 years ago today

Place: Cova da Iria, outside the town of Fatima, Portugal

The early Christians would have believed.


On the memorial of Bl. Alexandrina Maria da Costa

Deo omnis gloria!

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