Funerals are amongst the hatch, match and dispatch functions of a priest. Some funerals are routine—ripe old age, expected time-to-go deaths. Some are difficult—tragic and unexpected death. A funeral not easy to conduct is when a child predeceases his or her parents. Even if a parent were already 85 years old, still the 65-year-old offspring would be the “son” or the “daughter”. No parent ever wants to live longer than his or her children. They say that time heals all pains but for a parent who has lost a child, the pain is particularly piercing.
I started this homily by describing an experience which may help us empathise with Habakkuk, the prophet of the first reading who felt deserted by God. Many who have had to experience unexpected and tragic deaths, felt forsaken by God. They are often muted by God’s silence and their faith is badly shaken.
In the light of God’s promise to fulfil Habakkuk’s trust in Him, perhaps we can speak more about the faith God is also inviting us to. Firstly, we already know more or less the content of our faith because St Paul, in the second reading, encourages Timothy to be faithful to his ministry and to witnessing to Christ. Secondly, we know that the result can only be astounding as the Gospel reminds us that great wonders can be achieved with just a little faith.
But, for many of us, when we speak of faith, we buy into a myth that we may not even be aware of. Let me clarify, by myth, I am not referring to the content of our faith. It means what St Paul affirmed in the second reading about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as Saviour of the world is not a myth. By myth, I mean rather our approach to the content of our faith. For many faith is believing the believable. This is a reasonable statement in the sense that we believe in what can be believed. "Seeing is believing" is a form of believing in what can be believed.
But, faith is not just content, that is, what to believe in. It is also whom we believe in and how we believe. Our approach to faith, what we understand by having faith, actually describes our relationship with God. In fact, having faith is a description of the quality of that relationship, which is the “how” of faith. Often, with God, we delineate the “how” of faith as we define the parameters and set the rules for engagement. In short, we want to control the environment. What is a controlled environment if not a laboratory? In a controlled environment, something is believable only if it can be tested empirically. However, as long as we move within a controlled environment, what is faith but proofs—proofs that God has answered our prayers. The “how” of our relationship reduces God to one who exists only to grant our desires. In that case, faith still falls within the realm of science and our need for control.
Let me share with you on what struck me most in our recent experience. When we embark on a pilgrimage, we pretty much enter an environment beyond our control. The fact was, we did arrive safely at our destination and we did thank God that He had answered our prayers etc.
But, what about not arriving at our destination safely? If the weather or natural calamities had delayed our journey in such a way that we were stranded in transit or along the way, the coach met with an accident and some of us were injured and some even died?
Like Habakkuk, the first question would be, “Where were you God”? and second, “We set out on this pilgrimage of trust, and yet you have abandoned us”? As long as the result does not fall within our controlled expectations, then the usual interpretation is that God has abandoned us.
GK Chesterton mentioned something about faith and in a piece he wrote on the difference between Christianity and paganism and it makes sense in the context of the Gospel. He says, “Charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all”.
The quality of our relationship with God must accord with what the Gospel says at the end: “We are merely servants”. It means that in our relationship with God, we must restore God’s sovereign freedom to its rightful place. Faith as believing the incredible is believing in God even when He seems to be silent.
We have established that faith has a content—"what to believe", and a subject—"whom to believe in", God. Our struggle or challenge often is how to believe against all evidence that He is not present.
At Altöting, the Chapel dedicated to Our Lady, we found many votives. A votive could be anything—candles, stitches, paintings, photos, poem and amongst them was one which may help us understand how faith should be lived. Someone wrote to Our Lady: Thank you for not answering my prayers for 18 years. The person must have placed much faith in Our Lady to act according to her desires but only to encounter the sovereignty of Our Lady’s intercession. In the 19th year, her prayers must have been answered in a way more suitable for her than if, through the intercession of Our Lady, the Lord had granted it the minute it was made. Sometimes our request cannot be answered for reasons only known to God.
Today’s Gospel is an invitation to many of us who have found life to be unbearable because God seemed to have abandoned us or God seemed to be silent. Faith is trust, not certainty. Our restoration of God’s sovereign freedom to Him will enable Him to forge for us a solution beyond our expectation.
In conclusion, sometimes people say that, in response to the tragedy they have encountered, they have lost faith, as if they have lost their house keys or their wallets. The truth is, we can never lose our faith, we may be struggling to allow faith to shape our lives according to God’s sovereign desire. In the light of the apostles asking the Lord to increase their faith, we ask that He will grant us the grace on how to allow our lives to be more and more shaped by our trust in Him.