A few Sundays ago, the Gospel featured Jesus’ disciples asking, “Increase our faith.” Happily Pope Francis’ first encyclical, “The Light of Faith,” celebrates faith’s Scriptural, spiritual, ecclesial and social consequences. In our era when the Christian faith at the heart of Catholicism is so misunderstood, mocked or ignored, the pontiffs’ words are most welcomed. Amid the secular considerations that preoccupy today’s unbelieving society, the pope insists that Christians “profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love, which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.”
The papal encyclical begins, as one might expect, with Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of all believers. God’s call to Abraham and Sarah is an invitation to accept that God can lead them to their fullest selves. God can make Abraham, an elderly childless man, into a father. And God can make Sarah, an elderly barren woman, into a mother. Abraham and Sarah accept the promises of God on faith, that is, they take God at his word. The couple thus enters into a personal relationship with God and treasures his word. Even when the prospect of Abraham’s fatherhood is cut short by the threatened sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham does not waver in his commitment to God. Abraham continues to take God at his word – which is the very essence of faith.
Our Holy Father next cites the Jewish nation as our ancestor in faith. God promises to guide the nation of Israel onward toward its full, authentic self. God will lead the Jews out of Egypt and into freedom where they can become his worshipping people. Sometimes the Jews find it difficult to take God at his word, to remain a people of faith. Idolatry, the worship of something handy, something tangible, something evident, is a constant temptation during the forty-year trek to the Promised Land. God reassures his chosen people from time to time but faith, taking God at his word and trusting in a personal relationship with him, is tough for the Jews. They often forget that God is faithful.
Like Abraham and Sarah, and like the nomadic Israelites, Christians are also called to take God at his word that he will lead each Christian generation onward toward personal fulfillment and moral freedom. But happily for believers in the New Dispensation, God’s spoken word is now the word-made-flesh. Modern believers still have to accept God at his word, but his word was made visible, tangible, and historical in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. “…it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light.” “Christ’s total self-gift” the pope writes, “overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely.” The dead but now risen Christ is the “trustworthy witness,” a “solid support for our faith.”
Faith, then, is accepting God at his word, trusting that his promises to mankind will be achieved, that he can heal the world of sin, that he can guide history to fulfillment, that eternal bliss does indeed await those who are responsive to him. Faith, as well, is accepting the risen Jesus as God’s Incarnate Word, the historical proof that God will keep his word and never abandon mankind. The bishop of Rome writes, “Christian faith is faith in the incarnation of the word and his bodily resurrection; it is faith in a God who is so close to us that he entered our human history. Far from divorcing us from reality, our faith in the son of God made man in Jesus of Nazareth enables us to grasp reality’s deepest meaning and to see how much God loves this world and is constantly guiding it towards himself.”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem insightfully suggests that both God and the Christian community possess the same name: faithful. God is “faithful” and Christians are “the faithful.” St. Augustine explains further: “Man is faithful when he believes in God and his promises; God is faithful when he grants to man what he has promised.” Faith, then, is to embrace God warmly and wholly as one who keeps his promises, promises fulfilled in God’s good time but made certain by the death and resurrection of Christ.