Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Wisdom 18:6-9
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 33:1, 12, 18-22
Second Reading: The Letter to the Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19
Gospel: According to St. Luke 12:32-48
The Letter to the Hebrews is one of the more common New Testament texts used for Sunday Mass throughout the liturgical year. For those of a certain age it might be remembered as St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, because in the first centuries of the Christian era it was commonly (and, in retrospect, a bit ironically) attached to the letters written by the Apostle to the Gentiles.
It is a letter so often used liturgically because it is directed at an original audience who had lost their fervor and had become complacent in their faith lives. The lives of these early Christians, although vastly different on so many levels, were very similar to ours when it came to issues of faith and commitment. To maintain a heightened level of religious fervor for any great length of time is fairly impossible, and a work like the Letter to the Hebrews was written to provide the spark necessary to reignite the fire of faith.
This weekend’s reading begins with one of the most well known statements from this work: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Abraham, who had placed himself totally at the service of God, is put forth as the great example of faith in the Old Testament and the author catalogues the many times that Abraham showed his faith and the many ways that he was rewarded for it.
The author points out that Abraham and his offspring saw themselves as “aliens on earth” who were guided by God to a new and heavenly homeland. The theme of being displaced people is a constant one throughout both the Old and New Testaments, influencing numerous works of art and literature over the centuries.
The beautiful novel Strangers and Sojourners by Canadian Catholic author Michael D. O’Brien is an exposition of that phrase as used first in the story of Abraham and then in the 1st Letter of St. Peter where he notes that as aliens in this world we must “keep away from worldly desires that wage war against our souls.”
St. Paul talks about experiencing this life as if “looking through a glass darkly,” and C. S. Lewis had that reference in mind when he called this life the “shadowland” and wrote of faith and trust in an unseen God in his retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche in the book Till We Have Faces.
To realize that we are, as Jesus puts it, “in, but not of, this world” is to place ourselves in a very precarious position vis-à-vis our daily surroundings. The mundane – from entertainment to sports to politics – draws us into this world like an extremely strong magnet and often keeps us from even considering the fact that we were not made for this life alone.
The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are called in the same way that Abraham was, from a prosperous earthly life to one where trust in God brings untold joys: like the unexpected birth of Isaac in Abraham’s old age. We are the heirs to the promise made to Abraham; we are his “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.” We are called beyond this world – as good as it can often be – to a better, heavenly one where, as Dante said in Paradiso, the concluding book of the Divine Comedy:
“Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe.”