In the Christmas season, the differences in the Gospels become glaringly apparent. Why do Matthew, Mark, Luke and John start so differently? Theologians have several thoughts on this, and the Church considers none as definitive.
Even the identity of the Gospel writers is debated. It is generally agreed upon who their audiences were, but not the author itself. Some theologians feel Matthew was written first. Others promote that Mark was and that Matthew and Luke used Mark and another source (“Q”) to create the synoptic gospels. In all this, the Church teaches us that the Holy Spirit guided the writing of the text.
Paul’s letters were written sometime 20-30 years after Jesus was crucified, died and resurrected. The Gospels were written somewhere in the range of 60-90 A.D. They were intended to be a theology not archeology; after all, archeologists tell us stories consistent with historical finds.
I began discerning the challenge of “writing a Gospel” thirty to fifty years after the fact. Thinking of a monumental event common to many people I know, I decided to see what stories people would tell me so I could write a “Gospel” of 9/11. I asked several people to blindly send me “send me a paragraph about where you were on 9/11 and what you recall on that day.” I was intentionally vague so as to not bias the replies.
Members of my RCIA class replied:
On 9/11 I was at UW-Whitewater, where I had just begun my sophomore year. I remember it was a Tuesday. I was still asleep when I received a call from my girlfriend that a plane had crashed into a building in New York. I woke up and turned on the news before the second plane has crashed into the other building. That’s all I can recall specifically.
I was working but it was a sad day.
I am so not a morning person, so of course I was sleeping. My husband let the phone ring and ring until it woke me up. I turned on the tv to see the unbelievable happening…
I was at the police academy taking the state exam to become a certified police officer. There was about 50 of us taking the exam, we were about an hour into the exam and we heard people in the hallways talking. The police instructors came into the classroom with a TV on a cart. They plugged the TV in and said, “we are at war.” At first we thought they were messing around with us. Then we watched the live video of the burning tower. We were all just frozen and not sure how this could possibly be real but knowing that it was. The second tower got hit. The Sergeant said, “everyone call your department, you may have to report in.” He warned us to be careful; he said that uniform you are wearing is a target on your back; you need to watch out for each other and protect those that hate you. Everyone wanted to drop what they were doing and help. This is what we signed up for, to help people. We felt helpless that we were in the wrong place. There was not one person in that room that wouldn’t have run into those buildings to help. This was a sobering thought when we watched the towers falling to the ground. It was a moment that made everything very real. We knew in that moment what we signed up for. I have watched that video every year since. I know everyone has a different take on what happened or why; there are some people that don’t believe it happened. 9/11 was a horrific day, 9/12 was a wonderful day of love for each other and country. I don’t know why we have to have such ugliness, to appreciate each other and come together. As much as I hate 9/11, I love 9/12.
As a Gospel writer, I am guessing my story would be based on the courage seen in the fourth reply. Another person I asked replied:
I had just come back inside from the bus stop after putting my daughters on the bus. NBC news was on in the background like any other typical morning. I was in the bedroom and noticed the broadcasters’ voices and stopped to see what they were covering.
I saw the damage from the first plane and heard the news anchors speculating on the causes. I continued to watch – the second plane hit, then news of the Pentagon being hit. I was glued to the TV coverage. I watched the towers collapse and people covered in ash and felt a little like I was watching a movie and not real life.
My husband was downtown for work and I felt unsafe without our family all together not knowing what other locations were being targeted and how much more would happen. I reached him by phone and was relieved to hear he was leaving the city. I worried about my daughters and what they were being told at school and if they would be sent home. I remember being surprised at how quickly the government determined it was terrorism and who was responsible and that there were people in the world who felt it was their purpose to cause such death and destruction.
Finally, I asked friends who are Catholic deacons the same question:
I can’t keep it to a paragraph.
My wife and I were on our way to Chicago to buy some oriental food when we heard over the radio about an airplane crashing into the Pentagon, maybe a duster plane according to the DJ.
After shopping, we went to a restaurant for lunch and the Chinese lady told us that the twin tower was burning and showed us to a table near this huge television. We were in shock and did not understand what was going on. As we sat down, the second tower started to collapse.
We hurriedly finished lunch and then the machine would not accept our credit card. The system was down – good thing we had enough cash. We went straight home.
At 9-11 I owned my own truck and was driving up to the warehouse where they assigned me freight to deliver and pick up. I normally don’t listen to the radio but I turned it on halfway up to the warehouse to hear the news. When I arrived, I found a TV and shortly saw the first tower fall. I remember commenting that we just saw hundreds of people die.
What “Gospel” could I write from this? Not surprisingly, none of the replies looked for God in these events. It is not our natural inclination. Perhaps a “love of neighbor” could be developed from the fourth RCIA response. My own response would have started with seeing government employees at a meeting I was at in Kansas City scrambling to return to Washington D.C. when all flights were cancelled. Yet, my “Gospel” would also recall seeing that the area Churches were going to open that night to pray. I never recalled churches opening like this. I joined several who were praying for peace, praying to calm their fears and sensing a need to be with God in the moment.
Reading all these replies, it started to make sense to me how four versions of Jesus’s life could differ. In speaking on this, I ask people to recall their favorite family story or “history” told to them by mon, dad, grandma and grandpa. Each telling is based on the same truth yet, so familiarity different. How often does another family member or friend then come in and say “no, that’s right… the real story is was…”
That is what I see in our Gospels. Scripture presents a picture taken from many views. Together, they give the story of a God who so loved his creation that He joined us. He died for us and rose again so that one day we may too. He promised to remain with us. It is easy to see this in the overall writings of scripture but, what about in our own lives? Think of 9/11 and the 2020 pandemic. Where was God for us?
Let us start by looking past the history of these events to see God there too. It is not an easy task, as evidenced in my 9/11 replies. God was and is in our stories. For many of us, it takes time to see past the events to the see the stories of faith, fear and bravery. It can be hard to see the love when enveloped in the sacrifice. I know my father better today than at any time he was alive. I see his life now through the lens of my journeys.
Scripture was not a diary but a journey in salvation. We are part of this journey. Just as in scripture, we need to see God in the events of our lives. This is part of our witness to the Gospels and, an important part that we pass on to others.