January 27, 2017
Friday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time
Reading 1 Heb 10:32-39
"Remember the days past when, after you had been enlightened,
you endured a great contest of suffering.
At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and affliction;
at other times you associated yourselves with those so treated.
You even joined in the sufferings of those in prison
and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property,
knowing that you had a better and lasting possession.
Therefore, do not throw away your confidence;
it will have great recompense.
You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.
For, after just a brief moment,
he who is to come shall come;
he shall not delay.
But my just one shall live by faith,
and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.
We are not among those who draw back and perish,
but among those who have faith and will possess life."
Maybe it's because Aidan and I watched a Tony Robbins documentary last night, but I read today's first reading like a motivational speech. It seems St. Paul is motivating Christians who have lost or are losing hope in the vision of the ultimate purpose of their current suffering: arriving in the Kingdom of Heaven only by following the victorious Christ through His suffering. He is talking to a people who are growing weary in their faith. I'm sure that's where many of us are today.
To achieve this, St. Paul starts off by, perhaps, reframing a crippling nostalgia of "better times" in faith ("Remember the days past..."). Sometimes the evil one works in our memories, turning them against us, and especially so when we are feeling like we are in a drought or a dark night of faith. I have experienced this after reading old journals detailing the joyous days of my conversion to the Catholic Church. After reading them and seeing my old zeal and confidence, I feel bad that I am "not as faithful as I once was," and that "it is all my fault that I am not a better Christian." (Notice the quotes - I'm distancing myself from these ideas that are not from God.)
In other words, sometimes when remembering times of "enlightenment," we can inadvertently take a myopic view of our past and give ourselves too much credit for being the reason why those times were enlightened. We can idolize a "glorious past self" and "glorious past times" as a part of a "glorious past chapter" in our lives.
St. Paul, however, calls out this lie, reminding Christians that ALL of the time we are given is meant to be endured and postured toward the always more glorious future in the life of the Church, in the suffering and then glorious Christ. This ardent, and sometimes painful, maintenance of mindset can only be achieved through perpetual confidence in the Lord's work IN our lives, not what WE see and make of our lives ("do not throw away your confidence...you need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.")
Furthermore, the depth and quality of our confidence in the Lord should change (grow!) throughout our lives to meet our changing hearts of faith, marked by lives of good works and a humble walk of deepening friendship with the Lord. In other words, the confidence we once had when we were "enlightened" - experiencing a bright, shiny time in our faith life, a time of new faith - was MEANT for that time, but our ongoing confidence must be replenished and strengthened as we face different challenges in our lives. We must keep drawing from the same well of confidence and faith, but we must always dig deeper to find a greater and deeper source of faith for greater challenges.
And, assuredly by the words of St. Paul, we WILL face greater challenges and sufferings as we become closer to God. That is the only route; avoiding challenges and sufferings is avoiding God (caveat: of course we should not look for and idolize suffering and challenges... this can become its own problem!). But this is not a process curtly and casually described as "becoming a better Christian" - as if being a Christian is marked by a series of merit badges - but is a process better described as an attunement of our existence closer and closer to His Existence, closely listening for that deep, resonating pitch underlying the different seasons and demands of our life and adjusting our hearts to match it.
To close out this speech, St. Paul leaves us with a battle cry that we can conjure up in our hearts, or share with a friend, during times of dryness or despair: "We are not among those who draw back and perish / but among those who have faith and will possess life." (Imagine Mel Gibson riding on a horse, yelling this at you with war paint on your face if you have to.)
Have hope, dear friends, in these uncertain and scary times, that we are given all we need to endure the hardships God has lovingly allowed for our sanctification. Be not afraid to lean on others' faith in times when you have none... be not afraid to cry out to God in the dark... be not afraid to pray prayers like this battle cry when you do not believe it; sometimes, even just the motivation to believe in these promises is the act of faith that God is looking for.
Let us be of good cheer today, no matter what our circumstances may bring. May we not "draw back" and succumb to bitterness or envy, but rather, may we ask for a new heart, a new source of confidence in the mighty power of the Holy Spirit to work in all things towards Him.