Sunday, February 1, 2015

Septuagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 10:1-5 / Matthew 20:1-16

I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty; I so fight, not as one beating the air...

Among those sticks used to beat the Church, and the Church's faithful, one frequently used is the charge of arrogance. How, it is asked, can anyone possibly make the assertions the Christian faithful do — about the nature of God, the world, human life in this world and the world to come, and a host of other things — with any kind of certainty? What sorts of assurances warrant the kinds of sacrifices Christians themselves make, and more to the point, the kinds of sacrifices they sometimes insist others make, when what they assert seems to those who do not share the faith to be hogwash at best? Moreover, if Christians really believed what they profess to believe, should we not expect the world to work differently — less evil, more spontaneous healing of severed limbs, more and less dubious miraculous visitations, and the like? Minimally, should we not expect Christians themselves to behave differently?

In one sense, these critics are altogether correct. However compelling the evidence presented on behalf of the Christian faith, none of it actually compels belief. Nothing about the Scriptures, even the evidence of the fulfillment of prophecy, requires that a neutral observer take it to be anything other than an anthology of texts from the ancient Near East and Egypt, written by various persons over the course of centuries, with a somewhat spotty history of transmission. Nothing about the history of the Church's magisterium demands that the unbeliever see in any historical, or even present-day, articulation of Christian doctrine, the very same teaching proposed by Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry and confirmed by the work of the Holy Spirit. Even the proof of God's existence, which is compelling to reason, does not when honestly accepted require anything like the admission of the Trinity, much less the specific saving purposes of that Holy Trinity in saving the human race through calling us to share in his nature.

Why, then, is this not arrogance? Why is St. Paul able to distinguish our running of the race of faith from those who run for crowns that fade precisely on the point that we who run the race of faith do so not for some crown that may or may not be there for us? We submit to the discipline of the Gospel not thinking that only one of us might succeed, as though it is all practice with no reward. We do so out of confidence in Jesus Christ, confidence in his promises, confidence in the grace poured out upon us by the blood of the Cross. There is life eternal, and we have been called to share in it, indeed we already share in it through our Baptism.

The answer is simple, but not for that reason simplistic. We do so because of faith, the gift of faith. Faith is not the mere assertion of what we do not otherwise know. Faith is not a leap in the dark, based on the mere desire that what we long for should be out there where we cannot see. No, the faith we receive in Baptism is luminous. Faith makes us to see with eyes more than our own. Faith is a participation not in willful human assertions about unknowable truths, but rather a participation, here and now, in God's own knowledge of himself and of his purposes in and for the world. In faith, God has given us just enough light here and now to recognize in the Scriptures not merely many and disparate authors, but one principal Author, the Holy Spirit. In faith, God has given us illumination to see in the Church and her pastors not merely a group of men within a long, institutional history, but the very Body of Christ, the locus of God's saving work in the world. In faith, we can know not merely of God's general Providence, but more precisely how he has responded, will respond, and even now is responding to the evils of the world through the work of Jesus Christ.

This being so, that God has given us to see what our reason cannot reach, that we act really and truly out of sight, not out of will or assertion, makes the unbelievers challenge one we ought to make all the more to ourselves. That is, given not merely what we profess, but given that we in fact share in the light of faith and so can hold with a confidence not of our own devising that the promises of the faith are true, why do we not strive all the more to live in a way others can see this to be so? What have we done, and what are we doing now, to help one another in the faith to see at the very least within the Church, within the Body of those illumined by faith, to live the life that light of faith reveals more honestly, more truly?

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