This reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, October 6, 2013. For last Sunday’s reflection, click here.
Next Sunday’s readings teach us about living by faith. They include the classic line from the prophet Habakkuk, “the just one will live by faith.” St. Paul, of course, makes much of this line in his letter to the Romans. But it is important to have a fully Biblical, Catholic understanding of what this line means. This Sunday’s readings take us into that.
The reading from the prophet is both powerful and a little vague. The prophet cries for help, and gets none. Instead, he gets a “vision”: “for the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.” This is a little vague, and is perhaps meant to be.
As the Letter to the Hebrews says, we “look for a city which has foundation, whose builder and maker is the Lord.” That is, we look ahead, we press toward the “vision” in which God is all in all, where the city dwells in peace and worship, because the Lamb is its light. Christianity is lived within this vision.
But it is lived here and now, where, as Habakkuk says, “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.” In our families, in our hearts, in our streets, in our world: this is not the heavenly Jerusalem. So we press on towards the vision. “If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.”
That, says Habakkuk, is what it means to live by faith. Do not be “rash”: wait for it, live by faith, in the vision of God’s power, and the city he will build.
But the New Testament takes us deeper into what this means. Paul writes to the young bishop Timothy, “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” The New Testament takes us into the part of the vision that is here and now; the kingdom of God is among us. God has communicated his spirit to us, his power, his love: “not a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self-control.”
Timothy’s challenge is to live and proclaim the Gospel in a world of violence. He will have to “bear his share of hardship for the gospel” – but he can do this through the strength of the spirit of Christ, “the strength that comes from God.”
Habakkuk’s vision becomes a little more concrete. It is not just that we live in this world of violence and wait for God’s action. God’s action is in us. To live by faith means looking forward to the city that has foundations – but the foundation of that city is God’s spirit working in our own hearts, giving us the strength to love in this shattered world. Living by faith means believing in the Holy Spirit – “the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.”
The Spirit is in us precisely through the sacraments: “through the imposition of my hands,” by which Paul communicated the priesthood to Timothy, and by which the priests communicate the Holy Spirit to us in the sacraments. To live by faith is to believe that in the laying on of hands is the power of Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Confession, the Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. There is power in the sacraments!
The Gospel is at first strange, and in two parts. The first has us moving the mountains by our faith. Well, the point is not that we should dump mountains in the sea. The point is that God is living and active and powerful. To live by faith is to know that God, who made the mountains and the sea, is powerful enough to work in our hearts, even through the violence and destruction of this present darkness.
But then the Gospel gives us the other side. The Spirit in us is the Spirit of love. On the one hand, he is power – powerful enough to crush the mountains and empty the seas. But on the other hand, he is love. Not just a Spirit, but the Holy Spirit!
And so the second half of the Gospel has us saying, “we are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” Living by faith in God’s spirit does not mean we have the power to do whatever we want. The power is to love – to do what he wants, to lay down our lives beside him. The power to fight the violence and ruin by putting on our aprons and washing feet.