Opening the Word: Life-giving faith

Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), Pope Francis’ first encyclical, is a beautiful and challenging reflection on the nature of faith. It contains numerous observations worth pondering. Among them are three that directly pertain to today’s readings.

The first is that a life without faith is a life of emptiness and vanity. Pope Francis notes many people are proud of their “rationality” and open-mindedness, convinced that belief is “incompatible with seeking” and that faith is “an illusion which blocks the path of a liberated humanity to its future.” But what we find is that “the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future.” Without faith, life is reduced to isolated events, without real meaning and sure hope. In a striking phrase, the pope states that the man without faith ends up with a life that “disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants.” This is what the teacher Qoheleth examined so long ago in Ecclesiastes. His statement that “All things are vanity!” (Eccl 1:2) seems to be a cry of despair. But he was merely taking materialism to its logical end. Trying to carve out comfort and meaning in the material realm alone eventually leads to man standing at the edge of eternity, empty-handed and brokenhearted.

The second point is that true faith is not vague, sentimental or abstract. It is specific, concrete and rooted in a real and radical encounter with Jesus Christ. Christians, writes Pope Francis, “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.” This marvelous summary echoes today’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. “If you were raised with Christ,” he wrote, “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). In and through baptism, we have died; that is, we have been buried with Christ and are risen in new life, which is divine and everlasting (see Rom 6). Our life is not simply a series of chance events and unconnected moments, but is a dynamic journey that began in the waters of baptism and moves toward final communion with God in glory.

The third point is especially challenging and powerful. The opposite of faith, writes the pope, is not really skepticism or atheism, but idolatry. He refers to the story of the golden calf (Ex 32), when the people, unable to “bear the mystery of God’s hiddenness,” instead shape an idol they can see and touch, “the work of our own hands.” Idols are comforting, but deadly; they place us “at the center of reality,” but they eventually cause us to lose all orientation. We become enamored with what we have and possess, rather than who we are and whose we are. “Idolatry,” notes Pope Francis, “does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.” And where does that maze end? In death. Which is exactly the point of Jesus’ parable. The rich man fixates on possessions. He wants bigger barns and better stuff; he wants to “supersize” life! But he is a fool, for he ignores the real treasure — communion with God — and so loses everything. St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote that the rich man had not only been greedy, but had committed idolatry, for he was both “hateful to God and humankind.” The answer to materialism, despair and greed is true, life-giving faith. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.