Nineteenth Sunday of the Year – August 8, 1971 – CNR
The eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews is a long hymn in praise of faith, illustrated by the examples of the great men of the Old Testament.
The hymn begins with a definition: “Faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see.” My impression is that our view of faith has normally centered on the latter, somewhat to the neglect of the element of hope, although it is hope that is most copiously displayed in the OT heroes. Both sides of faith need stressing.
Faith ‘makes us certain of realities we do not see.” Part of the sense of this, of course, is that it brings us knowledge of the God who transcends this world, who is not part of the data that fall under our senses. But for a Christian, even more, it gives us certainty of the God “whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are not our thoughts,” of the God who is hidden, not just in his transcendence, but even more in the mysterious way he has chosen to act on our behalf: the God who is hidden in the man Jesus of Nazareth, the salvation and life that lie hidden in a death on a cross, the peace and joy that lie hidden under the burden of pain and anxiety that men bear in this world. Faith, by the touch of the Spirit, opens our eyes to see the real depth of being, the love of God that has called us to be and has saved us for his own life.
And “faith gives substance to our hopes.” For men do not merely live out of the past and in the present; they live for the future: and so hope is constitutive of human living and acting. Faith secures for us a hope that keeps us pilgrims, moving us beyond every city we have built and occupied, making us dissatisfied with every city that is not the New Jerusalem of God’s building. It is faith as the substance of hope that keeps our eyes on a lasting city, existing not above us, but before us, so that we are not turned away from the world but towards it, so that we can work to make its cities less inadequate models of the city to come.
Of the two aspects perhaps the first is primary, for if we did not have the conviction of realities we cannot see, perhaps we could not faithfully undertake the work of realizing our hopes. Pain would just be pain, sorrow just sorrow. But through faith, as we know that the City of God is not of human construction, so also we know that the building blocks and labor of its building are not the ones that men would use. This city has a cornerstone that men thought unfit for use and discarded, and we will be built up on him only if we too have been hewn and cut by the hidden ways of our hidden God to take part in “the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Nineteenth
Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 12, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
Many people regard religion in general as concerned with eternal truths, whether about God or the world or ourselves, with sets of corresponding moral values and obligations. This is what enables philosophers of religion to bring the great variety of traditions and experiences under a single definition of something called “religion” and political scientists to engage in general discussions of a topic like “religion and society.”
Christianity itself is often included under this broad category of “religion,” and many Christians themselves seem to regard their own beliefs and practices in a similar light. They would, then, look for a general moral lesson in a Gospel reading like the one we have just heard, which speaks of servants awaiting the return of their master and of a homeowner concerned about a possible burglary. They perhaps see the two little similes as a call to themselves always to be ready to meet the Lord, to recognize that we do not know the day or the hour of our deaths, when Christ, the Son of Man, will come for us.
I do not want to say that this moralizing is all wrong, or that the lesson drawn is not worth heeding. But something is missing when we turn Christ’s message into a set of eternal truths, and what is missing is the historical, the dramatic, character of his claims upon his contemporaries and, through the preached Gospel, upon us. When Jesus preached his basic message–“The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel”–he prefaced it with these words: “The time is fulfilled!” “The time is fulfilled!” The day of the Lord is dawning, this means, the day when God is going to display his royal power for the salvation of Israel. The appointed time has come. In other words, Jesus wanted to alert his hearers to the drama that was beginning to unfold in his words and deeds. Recognize the moment, he is saying, and respond appropriately: begin to act as one should act in a moment of crisis. Be like servants who are awake and alert and immediately ready to open the door to their returning master. Be like a homeowner who does not know when the burglar is coming, but is ready for him. And, of course, we can multiply the number of sayings and parables whose point is precisely the need to be aware of the critical character of the moment Jesus is introducing and to respond in a manner appropriate to it.
Originally, then, such sayings of Jesus were not statements of eternal truths, always and everywhere valid and valuable. They were exceptional statements, statements about what does not happen always and everywhere, about what is new and distinctive, and has a once-and-for-all character. The Kingdom of God is coming, is already here: Are you ready for it? Do you know what is going on? Are you up to its challenge?
This sense of crisis, with the excitement that accompanied it, marked not only the ministry of Jesus but also the early decades of the life of the Church. The death of Christ, his resurrection, and the flood of the Spirit into the lives of the first Christians gave them a sense of enthusiasm and a vivid expectation that God would soon complete the work he had begun in Christ. By the time the evangelists were writing, near the end of the first century, this sense of expectation had begun to fade as the Church settled in for the long haul of history. Perhaps St. Luke was trying to keep it alive in the retelling of the words of Jesus we heard today.
And what of us, almost two thousand years later? I don’t think expectation of the return of Christ is very strong in most Christians today. We don’t expect Christ to return today; perhaps we wouldn’t even want him to. But is there some way in which we can try to regain or to keep a sense of excitement about our Christianity? Would it not be a start simply to acknowledge that it ought to be exciting? That we ought not simply to say, as a general truth, “God is love”–though that itself ought to be exciting enough–but that God has loved us in Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ loved us and gave himself for us, that the Spirit of the risen Christ has been poured into our own hearts? Would it not help to reflect every once in a while that what we say in our Creed at each Mass is true, tells the truth about God and what he has done in Christ, and to open our hearts and let this truth inspire and arouse a deep peace and joy?
If you think about it, the only people in the world who say and believe such things about God are Christians, and if we are not excited by them, who will be?
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 8, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
The eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, is a lengthy recollection of the great heroes of Jewish faith. The list begins with Abel and his offering of a sacrifice pleasing to God and moves on then to Enoch and Noah and to the great patriarchs before concluding with Moses and an evocation simply by name of other great figures of the Old Testament. Of them all the author has two wonderful things to say: not only that “the world was not worthy of them,” but that “God himself was not ashamed to be called their God.” The God who refused to give the name that would reveal his inmost being was not ashamed to call himself “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
The figure of Abraham is singled out in the portion of the chapter we have heard. The man in whom the biblical history of salvation begins was the great example of faith in the Old Testament; for St. Paul he was the great symbol of the faith that justifies us; and in the Roman eucharistic prayer we call him our “father in faith.”
Three moments in Abraham’s relationship with God earned him this great title, his call to leave his homeland, the promise of a son born to him in his old age, and the call to sacrifice the son born of that grace. I will focus on the first of these because it is the one whose theme is most exploited in this letter as a model for us Christians. Abraham was probably born in the southern part of what is now Iraq, and that very name can remind us that the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all trace their religious histories from the same great hero.
Abraham set out in response to God’s call, “not knowing where he was going,” but, at God’s word, willing, simply out of faith in him, to leave behind the familiarity and security of homeland and people for the life of a nomad, without a known destination. That is the point stressed by the author of the epistle. Even when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reached Canaan, the promised land, they were there as foreigners and aliens. They were not at home even there, not because they wished to return to their original homeland, but because they were looking for another homeland, a better one, a well-founded city, whose designer and builder is God, the city prepared for them by God. That they are aliens is emphasized, that they are not settled down but living in tents, that they are in search of something more, some permanent place to live, some lasting home.
In all these respects, the author concludes, Abraham is a model for us Christians: “For here we have no lasting city, we are seeking a city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). The metaphor is supposed to apply: we Christians are like nomads, not living in houses but in tents, not at home anywhere but foreigners and aliens everywhere, always on the move, knowing where we’ve come from but not knowing where we’re going, looking forward to, moving toward, the only homeland in which we will no longer be strangers and aliens, the presence of God.
The rich metaphor has appealed to Christians over the centuries. A very early text, which scholars date from the first half of the second century, has this description for people who wonder who these new people are:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either by locality, by speech or by customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use some different language; they do not practice an extraordinary life….While they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, still the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous and contradicts expectations. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.
St. Augustine often used the metaphor to describe our lives as one of search, expectation, and longing; and he made much of the difference between living in tents on earth and living in a permanent house only in heaven. The theme of the “pilgrim people of God” was recalled to mind at the Second Vatican Council, only we shouldn’t think of that term “pilgrim” as if it referred to people on the way to some holy shrine; instead we should take it in its original sense. The Latin word peregrinus means stranger, foreigner, someone not in his native land; applied to the Church, it conveys the idea of us as a people not entirely at home wherever we may be living, but restless, rootless, nomads, wanting, eager even, to get home.
But, we might reasonably ask, do these metaphors have any meaning for us, apply to us at all? Is there anyone in this church who feels like an alien? The problem of immigration, and of illegal aliens, is all over the news these days. What would you think of alien as a symbol of what it means to be a Christian? Is there any respect in which our views or our behavior mark us out as aliens in American culture and society today? Or are we perfectly content here, thoroughly at home here, feeling no need and no desire to be anywhere else, to have a homeland anywhere else, to be different from everyone else? Do those words written from within a hundred years of Christ at all describe us: “Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign”?
All of this is prompted by the presentation of Abraham as an example and illustration of Christian faith, as our father in faith. Abraham was called to leave the familiar and the secure, and we should not be surprised if our Christianity at times or perhaps at some single great moment requires us to leave the familiar and the secure, that is, what everyone else is doing, or thinking, or saying, and to set off for a new and better homeland. We Christians are living as aliens and in tents, wherever we are, and we should not confuse these tents with our eternal home.