Sunday, August 11, 2013

That's what faith must be

What is faith? This is the question our readings today seek to bring to the forefront of our minds.

Our readings, especially from The Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel, also demonstrate the inextricable way faith and hope are bound together. I'd even go so far as to assert that faith entails hope. Hope, it is often noted, is the flower of faith. In any case, faith and hope are both theological virtues. Among other things, this means that they can only be initially acquired as gifts from God. However, like the natural virtues, once received, these gifts need to be nurtured. It seems to me that we nurture the supernatural gifts of faith and hope through loving, self-sacrificing, service to others. This virtue, love, agapé, caritas is also one, like faith, and hope, that is supernaturally bestowed.

I have long been a proponent of what I can only describe as the three fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving (the last of these can also be called selfless service). There is no authentic Christian spirituality that does not incorporate all three. I don't believe it is too much of a stretch to see a correspondence between the so-called theological virtues (i.e., faith, hope, and love) and these disciplines, which are taught to us by our Lord Himself: prayer/faith; hope/fasting; love/alms-giving (selfless service to those in need). Another connection I have made is that prayer, at least personal prayer, is very inwardly oriented (rightly so), one could even say subjective, and giving alms, serving those in need, is outwardly directed. Hence, I believe fasting serves an integrating function between the inward and the outward, a way of expressing hope, bringing to the level of my awareness my hunger for what is ultimate, my hunger for God, for that Bread of Life I posted about on Friday. It is also what makes my alms-giving/service truly Christian service.

In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict wrote about just this phenomenon:
Love of neighbor is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave (par. 18)

Since I am currently leading a parish Bible study on the Letter to the Hebrews, I am most interested in a reading from this book of Scripture appearing in the lectionary for today.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God. By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age—and Sarah herself was sterile—for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy (11:8-11)
So, we see that Abraham responded in faith to God's call out of hope, trusting that God was leading him to the heavenly city, or, more existentially, to where he wanted to be, the place of his deepest longing, which was not the land we call "Holy."

In our Gospel today, Jesus, as was His wont, gives us a very concrete example of the relationship between faith and hope. It easy to miss what He says that is startling. It certainly would have startled His ancient listeners: "Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them" (Luke 12:37). Along these same lines, the institution of the Eucharist in St. John's Gospel is Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.

As this pertains to you today, dear reader, in each and every Mass Jesus deigns to come down and not just wait on us, but becomes our feast. Our participation is an act of hope because it is an act of faith, trusting that Christ the Lord will bring to fulfillment to what we now only glimpse in passing, pressing ahead, like Abraham, our father in faith, towards the city "whose architect and maker is God," where, as we read from St. Paul last Sunday, "Christ is all in all." Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are how we "walk" make-our-way to, make present right now, the city of God.

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