I think this is the farthest behind I’ve yet gotten on a Sunday post. Sometimes life intrudes: right now I have a kid recovering from major surgery, my wife trying to take some days away to think about homeschooling, and a brutal heatwave – we have no air conditioning – that makes me shudder at the thought of opening my laptop. But I think it’s worth my while to reflect on last Sunday’s readings; perhaps it will be worth your while, too; so I’ll sit myself down in front of a fan . . . .
The readings, you will perhaps remember, were something obscure from Wisdom about the Passover; Hebrews 11’s classic catalog of what people did “by faith”; and Jesus talking mostly about being prepared when the Lord returns.
What strikes me about those readings – perhaps because it is a preoccupation of mine – is that faith has content. Liberal religion tends to turn faith into kind of a vague attitude – but, I have to say, conservative religion can do the same thing. It’s closely related to the tendency of modern Catholicism to replace Biblical spirituality with various forms of silence: as if God has nothing to say, as long as we vaguely trust in him.
But he does have something to say, and these readings are helpful demonstrations.
The reading from Wisdom is short, but its point is specific knowledge. “The night of the passover was known beforehand to our fathers.” “The holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.”
The divine institution. The word in the Greek original here seems to be nomos – the equivalent of Torah, the Law. But Torah has the deeper meaning of “teaching.” The divine institution – whether of the Old Passover or the New one, Christ and the Eucharist – is God’s teaching. We don’t know what it is unless we listen.
This is what set the Israelites apart from the Egyptians. God spoke to them, told them how they should worship, and they responded as he asked.
The reading from Hebrews begins with the classic definition of faith. (St. Thomas uses it.) “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” That’s dense; we need to unpack it.
Faith is intimately related to hope. It is the “realization” in the sense that by it we “realize” what it is that we ought to hope for. We hope for heaven – but we can only hope for heaven because we first believe in heaven. We hope for God’s grace and mercy – but we can only hope for these things because we first believe in them.
(The more literal translation is “the substance” of things hoped for. But the point is the same: faith tells us what to hope for.)
It is the “evidence,” or “argument,” of things unseen in the sense that it is the basis of all our thinking. In normal thinking we begin with what we know by our senses. In faith we begin with what we only know by faith. We think in a Christian way because God has told us something – something concrete, definite, not just a vague feeling that God is good.
The reading gives many examples of what faith is; let’s look at a couple: “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.” It’s not just that he vaguely trusted God – God told him where to go, and he went. The divine institution. Go where he sends you: for example, the sacraments, the Magisterium.
“By faith he received power to generate” (or procreate). Christ gives us powers we would not think we could have. Our thinking is far too natural. Too often even devout Catholics come up with what is possible, or reasonable to expect, based on their own lousy instincts. But God tells us something greater! To steep ourselves in Scripture is to see “arguments” based on different premises: the premise of the power of God’s grace, stronger than death.
The Abraham and Sarah story is amusing. He trusts God will give him a child, but keeps coming up with all too natural means of doing it – he adopts someone (Gen 15:2-3), even has sex with his handmaid. So too we compromise, because our “arguments” are based on natural assumptions, instead of on faith. We need to steep ourselves in Scripture to learn to think based on the awesomeness of God’s promises.
In the end, faith means trusting in the power of the resurrection: with the sacrifice of Isaac, “He reasoned that God was able to to raise even from the dead.”
Our Gospel has three sections. First, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid any longer . . . sell your belongings and give alms.” In other words, move on from natural calculations and trust in the power of God.
Second, he says, “gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding.” Faith teaches us to live in light not only of a past event, but of a future – something to hope for. He will come again in glory. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. We should “reason” based on preparing for that.
Third, Peter asks him how this applies to pastors – and Jesus gives an answer that applies both to pastors and to everyone else. Here, first Jesus says, your master is coming back, don’t forget that! Prepare for Jesus!
And then at the end he comes around again to the “divine institution”: “that servant who knew his master’s will . . . .” Act the way he teaches. Follow his commands: to live by the divine riches, not human strength; to hope for what is naturally impossible; be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect; follow the divine institutions (the Church, the sacraments, etc.). And look forward always to seeing the face of Jesus; do not set your sights too short.
How do you nourish your thinking according to the divine promises?