Saturday, December 30, 2017

Belonging to God's Holy Family

Reading: Hebrews 11:8.11-12.17-19

For today's Feast of the Holy Family, the Church provides us with a number of readings, each one worthy of being read, meditated upon, and contemplated. Because, apart from the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, which is the second volume of Luke' Gospel, often referred to (rightly, in my view) as "the Gospel of the Holy Spirit," my favorite book of the New Testament is the anonymously-composed Letter to the Hebrews, I am going to go with the option from the eleventh chapter of Hebrews (Wow! What a long sentence!). One reason for choosing this, apart from being so enamored with Hebrews, is this year, it seems, God has laid it on my heart to move past the sentimentalism that is so bound up with Christmas. While not entirely bad, such sentimentalism can impede discipleship, thus inhibiting the Church's mission. This discernment was borne out when I read Pope Francis's Christmas Urbi et orbi message.

It seems to me that the dominant theme in this reading is Abraham's willingness to sacrifice everything for God. Of course, God the Father sacrificed everything for us, namely his Son.

In Pope Francis's too easily forgotten first encyclical letter on the theological virtue of faith, Lumen Fidei, which was largely composed by Pope Benedict XVI, thus completing his cycle of encyclicals on the theological virtues: Love = Deus Caritas Est; Hope = Spe salvi, in a portion entitled "Abraham, our father in faith," we read: "Abraham is asked to entrust himself to this [God's] word. Faith understands that something so apparently ephemeral and fleeting as a word, when spoken by the God who is fidelity, becomes absolutely certain and unshakable, guaranteeing the continuity of our journey through history. Faith accepts this word as a solid rock upon which we can build, a straight highway on which we can travel" (sec. 10).

Abraham left his home in Ur of the Chaldees because he trusted God's promise that there was a land prepared for him and his descendants to inhabit perpetually. When he left home, Abraham had no idea where this land was, which meant he had no clue as to how long his journey would be or where it would end. Trusting God, he packed up his family and belongings and headed out.

Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan, by József Molnár, 1850

God promised Abraham descendants who would be as numerous as the sands of the seashore. Yet, he had only one child with his wife Sarah: Isaac and, at Sarah's insistent urging, another one with Hagar, Sarah's servant: Ishmael. As St. Paul noted: "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman" (Gal 4:22).

It is by faith that we, too, are Abraham's children. This is how God fulfilled his promise: "there came forth from one man, himself as good as dead, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore" (Heb 11:12). St. Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, wrote: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, 'Abba, Father!' So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God" (Gal 4:4-7).

We have trusted God's promise, sealed by the death and resurrection of his Son. This is precisely the promise that Anna and Simeon recognized when they encountered the child in the Temple. This trust, which is better-labeled hope and is the flower of faith, is wrought by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son. It is by being born of the Spirit that we become God's children, members of God's Holy Family.

Being born of the Spirit, something Jesus taught us must happen (see John 3:5-8), is how we become children of God, making us members of his family, the Church. Belonging to God's family means that, like Abraham, our father in faith, we too, are pilgrims, "Hebrews," which means foreigners, making our pilgrim way to God's holy city. Like Abraham, we are called upon to make sacrifices, perhaps to sacrifice everything that, to borrow more words from St. Paul: "forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:13-14).

Our pilgrimage, our journey through time, continues apace into the New Year. It is easy enough to know where God is leading you, at least ultimately. What is not so clear is the route you God will have you take. Hence, it is not so important to know where God is leading you in the new year. What remains important is that, like Abraham, you trust God to fulfill his promise. Given his deep Christian faith, I think this strikes pretty close to what Tolkien meant when he wrote, "Not all who wander are lost."

Because we belong to God's Holy Family by virtue of being reborn of the Spirit, we journey together, as companions. We are companions because we share the Bread that sustains us on our pilgrim way. As Michael Card sang, "There Is A Joy In the Journey."

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