Sunday, July 5, 2009

Seeing with eyes of faith


I was reading a book recently that took place in a small mid-western town; the kind of place you passed through on your way to someplace else. It was pretty unremarkable – there was a Main Street with a few stores, a bank, a movie theater and a bakery. Like a lot of small towns, it had its own culture, and its own way of looking at the world. Everybody knew everybody – and everybody’s business. One of the characters who had moved away would say of the town, “It was a good place to be from,” implying that he couldn’t imagine spending his whole life there.

After hearing today’s Gospel, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus might have felt the same way about Nazareth. In Mark’s telling of this event, Jesus returns to His hometown – another place where everybody knew everybody and everybody’s business. He finds people who dismiss Him as merely a carpenter, Mary’s son, someone who couldn’t possibly be capable of greatness. They can’t understand how someone like that could have such power and wisdom. And we’re told that Jesus was amazed at just one thing in Nazareth: their lack of faith.

Faith. We’ve been hearing that word a lot lately, haven’t we? Two weeks ago, when Christ confronted the storm at sea, He asked His disciples, “Do you not yet have faith?” Last week, Jesus marveled at the woman who touched His garment and told her, “Your faith has saved you.” Moments later, He said to the synagogue official whose daughter had died, “Just have faith.” But this week, it isn’t the power of faith that makes the biggest impression. It is the absence of it.

We live in an age when faith is so often absent. Last week, there was an item in the New York Times, asking readers to define faith. They received thousands of responses, ranging from the secular to the sacred, from the disbelieving to the devout. A lot of them were discouraging and took a cynical view of any kind of belief. I was reminded of a quote I once heard that said: “Faith walks simply, childlike, between the darkness of human life and the hope of what is to come.” Now, that kind of childlike wonder may have been something the people of Nazareth just couldn’t accept.

Faith, ultimately, requires acceptance. It is a gift – freely offered from a loving and generous God. But it is a gift many people reject. According to polls, only about a quarter of Catholics attend Holy Mass every Sunday. Fewer Catholics are getting married in church. Fewer still celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Many don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The mystery and beauty of the faith that binds us together -- that defines our values and that ultimately saves our souls -- are all in danger of becoming lost.

Too many people are living in their own Nazareth, blind to the great gift before them. Do we realize what we have been given? Do we understand it? Do we see the wonder before us? Do we believe it? Do we even want to? Because wanting to – that is the very beginning of faith. And faith, once accepted and embraced, yields extraordinary results. It helps us to understand how God works in our lives. It lets us see the world through different eyes. Eyes that can see with tenderness and hope. Eyes that can see a carpenter as a king.

Thinking about all this, and what Jesus encountered when He returned to His hometown, I went back to one of the greatest accounts of small town life, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It never fails to touch my heart. In the beginning, the stage manager who is narrating the story of life in Grover’s Corners describes it this way: “Nice town,” he says. “Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know.” But what you find as the play unfolds is that everyone is remarkable - every blessed person in that town. But nobody living there realizes that. And in the final scene, in the graveyard, one of the dead says of the living, with sorrow and regret, “They don’t understand.”

So many of us don’t – whether it’s Grover's Corners, or the small fictional town in my book, or the North End, or Nazareth. We tend to see with the hard eyes of the world, and not with the eyes of faith. We see only what is -- not what can be with God.

This Fourth of July weekend, we celebrate a great holiday that exists, really, because men and women 233 years ago in this town saw what could be. They had faith. Faith in the future. Faith in their ideals. Faith in the God who created them.

As we are reminded of their courage and sacrifice, let us also be reminded of their faith – and pray that we, too, might be moved to see the world differently. To see in Jesus not just a carpenter, but a king. To see in the host not just bread, but God Himself. To see in one another God’s continuing spark of creation. To see, above all, possibility.

To do that, I believe, is to see the world as God intended. It is to see … quite simply ... with the eyes of faith.

May the Lord give you peace.

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