At his installation mass as Cardinal of Newark, New Jersey, Joseph Tobin, CSsR, gave a powerful homily that I wish to quote from. It began this way:
“At a dinner party recently, I was asked; ‘what is the greatest challenge the church faces today?’ I thought a moment and replied: ‘The chasm between faith and life.’ My questioner looked at me a little quizzically and remarked: ‘Now that answer I didn’t expect!’ I imagine she was looking for one of the so called ‘hot-button’ issues that dominate the discourse both inside and outside the church. As noisy and divisive as those issues are, they don’t worry me as much as a growing trend that seems to isolate us, convincing us to neatly compartmentalize our lives. . . . During this Christmas season, God makes every effort to convince us that faith has everything to do with life, all of life.”
It seems that this issue of faith and life has been a preoccupation of many religious leaders over time. In today’s first reading Isaiah is pointedly concerned that the rituals of the Jewish practice of fasting be understood as a representation of the sacrificial love we are called to in caring for and about oppression and injustice in our world. He thinks that religious practices have value if they spur us on to finding ways to make our world a little more just and to lift the burdens of those who are oppressed. If we are engaged in spiritual practices as ends in themselves, but disengaged in a world that needs us, we may be missing the mark. Religion can be used as the Great Escape from the world. Isaiah has a number of warnings against severing the life of faith from the life of the world. (Check out these Isaiah readings: 1:12-14,9:1-6, 58, 61, 66.)
John the Baptist ushered in the new reign with his fiery brand of justice and right relationship to God and God’s world. Jesus himself contrasts the self-righteousness of the pharisees’ prayer in the temple with that of the penitent sinner who simply asks for mercy. The pharisee, so full of himself, went home unjustified in Jesus’ eyes.
The point of fusing faith with life is that Jesus wants us to be the “salt” and the “light” for the world. Today’s Gospel proclaims a mission for all believers. Be a zesty salt and a bright light for the world around you. Find a poetic language and courageous self-giving actions that others will pay attention to because it reflects the light of Jesus. We cannot be “zesty” and “bright” if what we say about our faith is not backed up by what we do with our life. It also loses effectiveness if we create our own closed circle and make Christianity some kind of private club with its own private set of rituals that only the most initiated can understand and appreciate.
The outside world may stretch the chasm by its rejection of religious values, but we “religious” folk widen the chasm at times by our lack of willingness to engage the world. We might do well to recall the prologue in John’s Gospel that begins with: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son . . .” It’s a world that we are called to love as well.
St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a great example of Paul engaging a world, not with “worldly” wisdom or philosophy, but with the message of hope given by Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross. Paul was truly a “zesty” salt and a bright “light” shining in the gentile world. He knew very well the connections between life and faith. He worked very hard in his letters to build a bridge between life and faith. He also backed it up with his life and his death for the sake of the Gospel message.
My brother-in-law just went to glory after a long battle with dementia. His faith was less connected to the official church, although he prided himself on having been baptized in both the Catholic and Baptist traditions. He did begin a Mennonite community of faith in Fort Collins, Colorado, many years ago. But his faith was concretized in the way he engaged with people. At his funeral, people called him a “warm light” and “a gentle kind heart” along with other accolades that showed how he left his mark on people’s hearts. When you were with him, there was no one else in the room but you. He fixed his loving attention on each person he met. This gift flourished in his life as both an academic and a social worker. He trained others on how to engage in a world that was wounded by injustice and oppression. He said to me many times that his “work” was spiritual. Having witnessed the fruits of his labour, I am more than inclined to believe him.
A concluding remark can be found with a few more summary images from Cardinal Tobin’s homily:
“The church is neither an elite club nor a static container of truth. It is a community that speaks with and listens to the world. The church senses a responsibility not as an institutional presence or a benevolent NGO, but a movement of salt, light and leaven. For this reason, our kindness must be known to all.”
Let us find ways to build bridges across the “chasm” by bringing life to our faith and faith to our life!
Williston gives parish missions and is a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.