Today’s first reading is about as distant from us as anything in the Bible.
The focus is on a man named Abram, or Abraham, who grew up in Ur, a city that went out of existence more than 2,000 years ago. The episode features a ceremony practiced by ancient kings, which involved walking between two rows of bloody animal carcasses.
Abraham sees the ceremony in a vision, in a trance, terrified. The point of it is to reinforce God’s assurance to Abram that his heirs will own a land that has already been fought over for thousands of years.
It’s all very strange.
What is not strange is the problem Abram is wrestling with. God has made him a fantastic promise, and Abram is having a hard time believing it. “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” As through a time warp, Abram’s words, uttered in the second millennium B.C., sound as though they come from the person sitting next to us at Mass -- as though they are our own thoughts.
God has made us huge promises. “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body,” St. Paul says in the second reading. Resurrection from the dead is a lot harder to believe than getting a piece of real estate. O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?
Difficulty believing God is not confined to the lukewarm. Toward the end of her life, St. Therese of Lisieux felt asphyxiated by unbelief. “When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God,” she wrote, “I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE.”
St. Paul of the Cross, in his last days, said that he had “the impression of having lost faith, hope and charity.” If we struggle with unbelief, we’re in good company.
How shall we struggle? Abraham’s example is instructive. He didn’t give up and walk away from God. He didn’t keep his doubts to himself, out of shame. He turned to God and spoke what was in his heart. “O Lord God, how am I to know?” He said to God what he was able to say.
Then, in his own, strange way, God helped him. Only thus did Abraham become our father in faith.