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Put a dent in ‘scoffing’ by ‘groping’ for God in the best possible way

      St. Paul’s speech to the Athenians in the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34) is a gem. I want to focus on just two verbs in the New American Bible Revised Edition of that passage: “grope” (v. 27) and “scoff” (v. 32). 

      To put “grope” in context, I start at v. 26: “He [God] made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps “grope” for him.”

      And now the context for “scoff”: “When they [the Athenians] heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to “scoff.”

      “Grope” and “scoff,” I maintain, best describe our times in regards to our faith. I can search for something without groping for it, but if I am groping for it, that implies an element of bewilderment or an air of desperation. 

      I see this with my students every school day. They want to believe, and so they grope for whatever will trigger faith. But the culture in which they live is strong, just like the culture St. Paul was addressing 2,000 years ago in Athens at the Areopagus, and so those triggers either remain elusive or prove ephemeral.

      The Athenians of St. Paul’s day had many shrines to their gods in their version of groping for God. America in 2020 has its shrines, too: social media, celebrity, greed, drugs and pornography, just to mention a few. 

      These shrines lead to the scoff. “What’s the point?” huffs the scoffer. “It’s all just personal opinion, anyway.” And so it goes.

      But the brilliance of Luke’s account of St. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus lies in the timing of the scoff: it’s only when the Athenians hear St. Paul speak of resurrection at the end of his speech that they scoff. Up to that point they’re willing to listen. God made everything? Fine. We are the offspring of God? Cool. People should repent? Okay. 

      But rising from the dead? Scoff.

      That’s brilliant on Luke’s part, because Luke knows what the core of the Christian faith is: resurrection. Furthermore, Luke understands that the resurrection is, for many people – not just ancient Athenians – the most incredulous element of the faith. So Luke sets up St. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in order to maximize the speech’s punch line: the resurrection.

      Nothing has changed. The incredulity remains and continues. The only thing different is the means through which the incredulity is expressed. 

      But the Catholic Church, in her wisdom, knows the antidote to the incredulity: Lent and Easter. 

      The Catholic Church has, over the centuries, kept harkening back to its core, because the Catholic Church knows that despite the incredulity, human beings long for truth and beauty. And the source of truth and beauty is God. And God is no more beautiful than when God gives life. 

      Thus, the Catholic Church keeps plugging away, deflecting jabs, bobbing and weaving, trying to snuff out scoffing through patient re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery. 

      Back to my students. They sense all this but are afraid or too timid to express it before their peers. These are the students who linger after class or wander into the classroom at the conclusion of the school day wanting to talk about such matters. Not many students, but some.

      Again, nothing has changed. What does Acts 17:34 say? “Some did join him [Paul], and became believers.”  Some.

      We are on the cusp of the Catholic Church’s great battle against scoffing. During Lent, put a dent in the prevailing incredulity of our day by participating in the liturgies, pondering those Scriptures, giving alms and starting over in your journey to with God. 

      People will notice, I guarantee it. They are just like my students. They notice, but they just don’t want you to notice that they are noticing. Smile at that.

      Smiles go a long way in stopping scoffing.


      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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