Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Saturday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pillar of Faith
February 18, 2017
Heb 11:1-7, Ps 145, Mk 9:2-13
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- When we began this two-week prayer of the Book of Genesis, I mentioned that there’s a reason why the Church does not begin Ordinary Time with the first book of the Bible. It starts with the Letter to the Hebrews, because in order to understand the meaning of Genesis we have to examine it within the context of God’s definitive word in Christ. That connection is even clearer today, when after 11 days in the Book of Genesis, all of a sudden we have the first reading from Hebrews 11. You may recall that it was exactly three weeks ago that we had the beginning of Hebrews 11, which begins with the famous words, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” But after those words, we skipped to verse 8 and focused on Abraham. Today we return to it and cover verses 3-7, in which we look at the Creation account, Cain and Abel and Noah from the perspective of Hebrews. And we look at them precisely through the perspective of faith.
- Hebrews defines faith as “the realization (hypostasis) of what is hoped for and evidence (elenchos) of things not seen.” I’ve printed the Greek because getting those terms right is crucial to understanding faith, and there has been considerable controversy between Catholics and Protestants on this issue, whether faith is objective or subjective. Pope Benedict, in Spe Salvi, clearly described what the Catholic understanding is. He wrote, “For the Fathers and for the theologians of the Middle Ages, it was clear that the Greek word hypostasis was to be rendered in Latin with the term substantial — … faith is the “substance” of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. Saint Thomas Aquinas using the terminology of the philosophical tradition to which he belonged, explains it as follows: faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of ‘substance’ is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say ‘in embryo’—and thus according to the ‘substance’—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this ‘thing’ which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not ‘appear’), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence. To Luther, who was not particularly fond of the Letter to the Hebrews, the concept of ‘substance,’ in the context of his view of faith, meant nothing. For this reason he understood the term hypostasis/substance not in the objective sense (of a reality present within us), but in the subjective sense, as an expression of an interior attitude, and so, naturally, he also had to understand the term… as a disposition of the subject. … This in itself is not incorrect, but it is not the meaning of the text, because the Greek term used (elenchos) does not have the subjective sense of ‘conviction’ but the objective sense of ‘proof.’ Rightly, therefore, recent Protestant exegesis has arrived at a different interpretation: ‘Yet there can be no question but that this classical Protestant understanding is untenable.’ Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’ The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.”
- We see that in the examples given:
- “By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God.” God pronounced creation “good, … good, …, good, … good, …,good, … good, … very good” not just because it was good in itself but it flowed from Goodness himself. Creation not only came through the Word “through whom all things were made” but was ordered according to God’s word and mind. That’s why creation is revelatory and we can seek God through it. Through faith we grasp that the universe gives us, already now, a participation in God’s life and work.
- “By faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice greater than Cain’s. Through this, he was attested to be righteous, God bearing witness to his gifts, and through this, though dead, he still speaks.” Abel’s sacrifice was superior to Cain’s because it was given in faith. Faith led to his justification and was an expression of it. He still speaks — his blood cries from the ground — because in faith he was alive and remains alive in God.
- “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was found no more because God had taken him. Before he was taken up, he was attested to have pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Sacred Scripture says very little about Enoch, just “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Gen 5:24). But Hebrews tells us that he walked by faith and was assumed in faith. It also tells us two things about faith: that to please God by faith we must first believe that he exists and that he responds to our prayers, rewarding with the gift of himself those who approach him. Enoch had this dual faith.
- “By faith Noah, warned about what was not yet seen, with reverence built an ark for the salvation of his household. Through this, he condemned the world and inherited the righteousness that comes through faith.” Noah’s building the ark was a trust in what God had said, that even though he could not have any experience of a storm on the way that would know no parallel, he started building an ark far from the water, far bigger than anything ever built. His faith in God’s word gave him the substance and the proof he needed.
- We see in the Gospel how Jesus sought to increase the faith of the three apostles Peter, James and John, and through them, after his resurrection, in the faith of the other disciples. The context was immediately after the scene of Caesarea Philippi, when subsequent to Peter’s confession of Christ as the Messiah and Son of God, he and the other apostles refused to accept Jesus’ words that he would “suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days” and that if any of them wanted to reign with him he would have to “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow” Jesus, losing his life to save it. Peter replied “God forbid, Lord” and rebuked Jesus. It’s clear they needed faith to accept the reality of Christ’s suffering, to trust in his word because of their trust in him, to accept in the present what Christ was saying was a guarantee about the future. So after a 60 mile journey from Caesarea Philippi to Mt. Tabor, Jesus had them hike with him up an “exceedingly high mountain” and there he allowed them to witness his glory, seen in his dazzling clothes illuminated from the inside out, in his speaking with perhaps the two greatest figures in Biblical history — Moses and Elijah — about the “exodus” he would accomplish in Jerusalem, and hearing God the Father answer his Son’s question “Who do you say that I am?” given in Caesarea by thundering from the cloud covering Jesus, “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.”
- Here we see several aspects of growth in faith:
- First, prayer. Jesus took them up the mountain to pray. Prayer is faith in action.
- Second, exertion. The life of faith isn’t easy. We must work to enter into the mind of God.
- Third, the actualization of Scripture. Moses and Elijah are very much present, though in a different manner than they were on earth. They were speaking not about their past exploits but about the present and the future.
- Fourth, God the Father’s words: to believe in Jesus as his beloved Son and to listen to him. The fact that God the Father told them to listen to Jesus, despite the fact that they had been listening for the previous two years, is a sign that they had been selectively listening, and that they had been particularly tone deaf to his words about his upcoming exodus, about his betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection. We see that they were still struggling with this after the Transfiguration, because as they were descending, they asked about Elijah whom they had just witnessed and whom they believed needed to become before Jesus. Jesus answered their question, but while doing so, he brought them back on point, saying, “Elijah will indeed come first and restore all things, yet how is it written regarding the Son of Man that he must suffer greatly and be treated with contempt?” They still weren’t focused on the main point.
- Likewise for us to grow in faith, we need to grow in trust of what Jesus says, even and especially when it’s hard. We need to pray, to struggle to put on the mind of Christ, to ponder and actualize Scripture and to pay particular attention to those words of God that we find most difficult to accept.
- Someone who shows us how to do that is Mary. Today we celebrate the Votive Mass of Mary, Pillar of Faith. She was one whose whole life, like Creation, was ordered according to the Word of God, who said in faith, “let it be done to me according to your word.” She was one who was praised by her cousin, “Blessed are you who believed that what the Lord had spoken would be fulfilled.” She was one who was with her Son until the end, as all that he had prophesied came true. She’s now interceding for us that like Noah, Enoch, and Abel, eventually like Peter, James and John, we might recognize the substance and proof God gives us when he gives us himself in the Holy Eucharist, our true, embryonic participation in eternal life.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 HEB 11:1-7
Brothers and sisters:
Faith is the realization of what is hoped for
and evidence of things not seen.
Because of it the ancients were well attested.
By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God,
so that what is visible came into being through the invisible.
By faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice greater than Cain’s.
Through this, he was attested to be righteous,
God bearing witness to his gifts,
and through this, though dead, he still speaks.
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death,
and he was found no more because God had taken him.
Before he was taken up, he was attested to have pleased God.
But without faith it is impossible to please him,
for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists
and that he rewards those who seek him.
By faith Noah, warned about what was not yet seen,
with reverence built an ark for the salvation of his household.
Through this, he condemned the world
and inherited the righteousness that comes through faith.
Responsorial Psalm PS 145:2-3, 4-5, 10-11
R. (see 1) I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
R. I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
Generation after generation praises your works
and proclaims your might.
They speak of the splendor of your glorious majesty
and tell of your wondrous works.
R. I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD,
and let your faithful ones bless you.
Let them discourse of the glory of your Kingdom
and speak of your might.
R. I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
Alleluia MK 9:6
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The heavens were opened and the voice of the Father thundered:
This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MK 9:2-13
Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
then from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, the disciples no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.
Then they asked him,
“Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
He told them, “Elijah will indeed come first and restore all things,
yet how is it written regarding the Son of Man
that he must suffer greatly and be treated with contempt?
But I tell you that Elijah has come
and they did to him whatever they pleased,
as it is written of him.”