Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hope is not wishing, but trusting in God's promise

Over the course of Lent I have been reading repeatedly the Letter to the Hebrews. I read fours chapters per day, which means that I finish the book every three or four days. Because Hebrews has thirteen chapters, I am forced to vary for either one or two days reading four chapters. Technique is not important, however. It never ceases to amaze me how rich God's word is, as Hebrews says, it "is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart". (4:12- ESV)

Sunday I was reading Hebrews 11, which is a breath-taking exposition on the theological virtue of faith, which it links closely to the forgotten, or least understood, of these God-given gifts, hope. Hope is the fruit, or flower, of faith. Put less poetically, hope is the product of faith. The chapter begins- "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." (1-3- ESV)

The author proceeds to give examples of those people of old, how they lived by faith, that is, lived hopefully: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah. Between Enoch and Noah the author of this letter, what Bible scholar Daniel Harrington calls a written sermon, notes that "without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him". (6- ESV)

Writing aboout Abraham and Sarah, the author commends them for going to the land promised them, thus acting on faith. Filled with hope they looked "forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." (8 and 10- ESV) "By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised." (11- ESV). Hence, the author continues, "from one man, and him as good as dead [meaning Abraham, who was past the age of child-bearing himself], were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." (12- ESV)

What is the point of discussing these "people of old"?
"These all died in faith, not having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire the better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (13-16- ESV)
In other words, they died not having experienced in their own lifetimes the fullness of that which God promised them. They did not die bitter, or unfulfilled. They passed filled with hope; trusting in God's fidelity to His promise.

The inroit for Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Lent refers to our longing for the city of God: Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her; rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts (Isa. 66:10-11) Indeed, "here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come." (Heb. 13:4- ESV) The new Jerusalem.

In his encyclical Spe Salvi, to which we have paid too little attention, the Holy Father pays great attention throughout his letter to this important book from the Christian Scriptures. I only wish to cite here the passage in which he wrote: "When the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christians here on earth do not have a permanent homeland, but seek one which lies in the future (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Phil 3:20), this does not mean for one moment that they live only for the future: present society is recognized by Christians as an exile; they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage." (par. 4) The church is supposed to be a foretaste of the heavenly city.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

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