What does it mean to look at the circumstances of our lives but live by faith in an unseen reality?
Note: Preaching this weekend was a clarifying experience for me, in more ways than one. This was my third homily, but it was the first homily I preached more than once — three times, in fact. As my mentors told me would happen, it changed each time I preached it; among other things, it got shorter, and, I think, clearer and more focused. This lightly edited version is still too long, and could perhaps be clearer, but it’s as good as I could make it for now. — SDG
Let us be simple and true with ourselves. It is in our heart, in the depth of our heart that we must say “yes” or “no” to Jesus, “yes” or “no” to the path of truth and of peace; “yes” or “no” to the victory of love over hate, “yes” or “no” to his resurrection.
Those words come from the homily at last Tuesday’s funeral Mass for Father Jacques Hamel, given by Archbishop Lebrun of Rouen, France. Father Hamel, of course, was murdered the week before while saying Mass, right in the sanctuary, by two radical Islamists. Father Hamel was 85 years old, still serving God’s people.
In his homily the archbishop said Fr. Hamel’s life and death call us “to a frank ‘yes,’ not a tepid ‘yes.’ A ‘yes’ to life, like Jacques’ ‘yes’ at his ordination.” Of course this “‘yes’ to life” isn’t just a “yes” to this life, but to life in Christ.
Saying “yes” to this life is easy. It’s all around us, visible, tangible, knowable. Saying “yes” to God means living according to a reality that is unseen, known by faith. It means looking at the world around us, the visible circumstances in which we live, and saying “That’s not the whole story” — and living like it.
We see this in all three of today’s readings. The Hebrew slaves in Egypt in the first reading, Abraham in the second reading, and the servants in Jesus’ parable awaiting the return of their master all live in expectation and readiness of an unseen reality.
What did the Hebrew slaves see, looking around on the eve of Passover? The might of Egypt that enslaved them: pyramids and obelisks, temples and palaces. They saw the Nile river, where Pharaoh’s soldiers had drowned the Hebrews’ infant sons.
But that wasn’t the whole story. God was about to set his people free. Just as the Egyptians had slain the Hebrews’ sons, God was about to slay Egypt’s firstborn sons. And so the Hebrews celebrated the first Passover, putting the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts and lintels so their sons would be spared and they would go free.
The second reading about Abraham is from the book of Hebrews, from the great faith chapter, Hebrew 11, which begins with this amazing verse proclaimed a few minutes ago: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for, and evidence of things not seen.”
Abraham in his native land in Ur of the Chaldees looked around with his eyes and saw … the only home he had ever known. He was an old man, with a barren, old wife: no reason to think any children were coming; no reason to think about putting down roots somewhere else.
But that wasn’t the whole story. God had called Abraham to a land he had never seen, where he had no inheritance, but which his children would inherit — children he had no earthly reason to expect, but which God promised. He was even willing to trust God with his son Isaac’s life and death, willing to sacrifice him at God’s command, believing that if necessary God could raise Isaac from the dead.
Saying “yes” to God isn’t just belief. You can have the gift of faith — the theological virtue we receive in baptism, enabling us to believe in God and all the revealed truths of faith — and also be in mortal sin. The theological virtue of charity, of divine love, is lost with every mortal sin, but faith is different. You can have faith without trust and obedience.
But there’s more than one kind of faith. Think about faith in a marriage. If a husband and wife keep faith with one another, that doesn’t just mean having faith in the other person. It means being faithful yourself.
The faith in Hebrews 11 is the realization or the assurance of what is hoped for. See how faith and hope are connected? And there’s no hope without love. Without love of God, there’s no hope of heaven. The hope of heaven is the hope of love.
Notice how in Jesus’ first parable, when the master returns, he doesn’t expect his servants to wait on him — he waits on them, like Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. That’s no ordinary master! That’s a master who loves his servants, and they serve him out of love.
So this faith implies hope, and hope implies love. It’s not just belief, it’s also loving trust and loving action.
I’m sure many of you remember playing a game as kids where you make your body stiff like a board and fall backwards without looking, and someone stands behind you who’s supposed to catch you — and if they’re trustworthy, they do. It’s one thing to believe the person will catch you, but actually putting that belief into action is a very different and scary thing!
About a century and a half ago there was a French tightrope walker named Charles Blondin who became famous for walking on a tightrope over Niagara Falls — not just once, but many times, always with a different trick. He did it blindfolded; he did it on stilts; one time he cooked and ate an omelet out there — don’t ask me how!
Then there was the time he did it with a wheelbarrow loaded with a sack of potatoes. The crowd went wild. Then Blondin asked: “Do you believe I can push this wheelbarrow across with a person inside?”
And everyone shouted, “You’re the greatest! You can do it!”
And then he asked for a volunteer. Crickets. No one doubted he could do it — but no one wanted to entrust their life to him.
Eventually Blondin did carry a man across the Falls: his manager. His manager wasn’t just a spectator. He was all in. In a far greater way, faith for us means we can’t just be spectators — we have to be all in.
It wasn’t enough that the Hebrew slaves believed that God would save them, or that the servants believed the master would return, or that Abraham believed that God would keep his promises even if he raised that knife over Isaac. Abraham was all in.
What does that mean for us? To look at the circumstances of our lives but live by faith in an unseen reality?
The world looks at outward circumstances and asks “Why bother praying? Why keep going to Mass every week? You’re wasting your time. Nobody’s listening.”
And sometimes, as many of the saints have found, it can even feel that way to us. Sometimes we feel God’s presence so close and so real, or we receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and our union with Jesus is so profound; other times it feels like our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling and we’re talking to ourselves; or we receive communion and it feels like nothing happened.
Faith calls us to embrace a reality that is unseen and sometimes even unfelt: that God is closer to you than you are to yourself; that your prayer doesn’t start with your own effort, but with God working in you, moving you to pray; that the graces that come with no sense of reward or consolation can do your soul deeper and more lasting good than the graces that come with a profound sense of God’s presence. Being all in means continuing to pray every day and come to Mass every week, whatever we feel.
The world asks, “Why marriage? How can you tie yourself down to one person for the rest of your life? How do you know how you’re going to feel in a year, or ten years, or 25 years?” This week Suzanne and I celebrated our 25th anniversary. We made that commitment in faith that God’s plan for marriage and family life is for our good and our happiness. Maybe we didn’t know how we would feel 25 years later, but we were all in, and we still are.
The world says, “Marriage or no marriage, you’ve got to be smart. You have to use contraception, or you’ll go bankrupt having so many kids.” Every family is different; God has blessed us with seven children. That’s not his plan for everyone, but we can’t say “yes” to Jesus and to contraception. We trust God’s plan or we don’t. We have to be all in.
“How can you forgive that person after what they did to you?” Well, God has forgiven me so much; how can I not forgive others? If I don’t forgive, how can I hope to be forgiven?
“How can you talk about loving your enemies?” Well, God loved us when we were enemies with him.
This is an amazing calling — so amazing that Archbishop Lebrun, in that funeral homily, asked not “How do we do this?” but “Is this possible?”
Is this possible? We must respond yes every time. God will not force us. God is patient. God is merciful. Even when I … said no to love, even when I said to God “perhaps later”, even when I forgot, God waits for me because of his infinite mercy.”
In whatever ways you or I have said, or are tempted to say, “no” to God, or “perhaps later,” He waits, for you and for me, even now.