February 19, 2011 - Saturday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

The first verse of our first reading today is one of those which is often engraved on a plaque and given as a religious gift. It is easily quotable and very inspiring. One reason this verse is so quotable is that it sounds like a definition. We hear, “Faith is…”, and we are interested. We would like to know what faith is. The literal translation is “But faith is the substance of what is hoped for, the evidence of what is being done unseen.” Substance is that which stands underneath. So faith is the basis of hope.     

To understand this verse better, we need to consider the context. The author of Hebrews is saying to the people, “When you first began to believe, you did well. You threw yourself into following God entirely. No one was able to extiguish your hope and commitment to God; neither threats nor violence nor losing your property stopped you from following Jesus Christ. Now you are undergoing another trial: time. Years have passed. Are you going to give up now that which, at the beginning, no one could have taken from you by force?”

We can sympathize. The enthusiasm of youth, the excitement of something new, has died away. Why? Because we expected to see results, either external results, like the Kingdom of God coming again in power, or internal results, like real holiness in our lives. It is difficult to stand after years of struggle and look around and see that the world is basically the same as it ever was, or perhaps somewhat worse. It is difficult to look within and see that I have not even made much progress with myself: I find the same faults I have always had.

Now, “Faith is the substance of what is hoped for, the evidence of what is being done unseen.” Hope without faith underlying it, supporting it, would just be optimism. We believe that Jesus Christ has saved the world and that he is at work in the world right now and that he is at work within each of us. We may not see the results, but our hope is based on something solid. When that feeling of enthusiasm has died away, as it will, when we can no longer see any reason to hope, then all we have left is faith. In other words, if we believe that God is God, then we do not need to be afraid.