Christmas and the Cross: Distinctions of Faith

While I do not believe that Faith and Reason are opposites, it is the case that Faith is a mystery to Reason. The moment we attempt to analyze faith we lose it, as though attempting to hold still in our peripheral vision that glint of light which flashes and is gone. Despite this, I’m going to attempt the foolish and distinguish between two experiences of faith. So while it seems to me that faith is a unity, and that in distinguishing between different “kinds” of faith, we do so heuristically, nonetheless, in thinking about how we exercise our faith, it seems that there are broadly speaking two ways in which we can do so. Each one challenges us in particular ways.

“According to your faith, be it unto you”

Unless I’m mistaken there is a certain kind of faith, in which the Lord himself responds to the faith we place in God. The instances of this are numerous in the Gospels. We often hear our Savior say, “according to your faith, be it unto you,” “as you have believed, so let it be to you.” Perhaps we may take a cue from the Gospels themselves, three-quarters of which record it, and look at the account of the healing of the centurion’s boy. He begs the Lord to come and heal the sick child, but then relents and asks Jesus to simply say the word, in so doing explicitly recognizing Jesus’ authority. The Lord marvels at his faith and does heal the boy—with a word. “As you have believed, so let it be done to you.”

We have here a faith which calls forth a response of the Lord. This is shocking. Our faith in God calls forth from him a response. Again and again in the Gospel we see this happening. The Syro-Phoencian woman, the woman with the hemorrhage of blood and Jairus’ daughter, and so forth. In fact, the Lord instructs us that the smallest amount of faith is all that is necessary for the seemingly impossible: the removal of mountains. Indeed, the Lord responds to faith that is even apparently overcome by doubt, as the disciples learned on coming down from the holy mountain of transfiguration, and heard the father’s desperate cry: “I believe Lord, help thou my unbelief.”

The obvious battleground for this sort of faith, of course, is the battle over doubt: Will God truly grant this request? If one knew for certain, one wouldn’t ask. It would not be a petition. This is where the analysis of the intellect plays havoc with the faith “as a little child.” And let us be clear: this is not the faith of magical thinking. After all, the father of the lunatic son likely had more doubt than faith. And even St Thomas ultimately was granted a personal audience with the risen Lord. No, this is simply the faith that God loves me, God has the authority and the power to do as I ask, and so I will ask him and believe that he will answer. Here’s the thing: the Incarnate God responds to just this type of faith.

Surely, this response of the Lord is motivated by something other than the quantitative amount of one’s faith. Perhaps there is a quality of faith, even very, very small faith that draws forth this response of the Lord. It may be better to ascribe this motivation to the Lord’s infinite love of all his creatures. Do we not do this with our own children? However tiny, however self-motivated, however awkward, we respond to our children’s trust with the generous outpouring of all our love. We grant them their requests and petitions, because they love and trust us, and because we love them even more than life itself.

This, then, is the basis for such a faith: the love of God for us, who will not give a stone to those who ask for bread. This love is our confidence, this love is the foundation of our mustard seed faith, knowing that our trust in Christ motivates the gift of our petitions.

“Be it done to me according to your will”

But it seems to me that there may be another sort of faith as well. Not so much a faith to which the Lord responds, but the faith which responds to the Lord. There are two poles around which we orient ourselves on this point, both of them unfathomable mysteries: our Lady’s “be it done to me according to thy word,” and her Son’s “nevertheless” in Gethsemane. The Virgin Mary is visited by an angel, itself an incomprehensible experience, and there told that she would be with child by the Holy Spirit, for with God nothing is impossible. The mind has no purchase with which to grasp this news: the human maiden would bear in her body the “Son of the Most High,” God in the flesh, taking from her his own flesh and bones. She could not have rationally comprehended what this meant, nor the fullness of what it would entail. Nothing like this had ever happened, nor ever would again. There, in the silence of mystery, the darkness of all light, she humbly bowed her head in faith and willingly gave her will to the action of God.

Faced with this example, is it any wonder then, that our Lord, perhaps calling to mind the narrative of his Mother’s humble submission, also willingly submits his human will to the divine will, bringing his human thoughts into the darkness of the mystery of suffering and death and redemption: “Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done.” We may here call to mind those precursors in the Lord’s faith who also walked this great mystery as a type: Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God, and Job scraping pustules on the ash heap.

This is a faith that faces not the battle of doubt over whether God will grant one’s petitions, but whether God is good. It is hard to qualify the severity of the different tests for these types of faith, but for my money, this appears to be the hardest of all. We may ultimately come to know or simply to accept that God will not grant this or another petition, no matter how fervent our faith on the matter. But this, this is something altogether different. There is no analysis congruent for this. We are called here to apparent non-being, to ignorance, to believe in what appears not to be true: that God is good, even in the midst of suffering, death and shame.

But surely this is precisely the location of the motivation of such faith of ours in the Lord: the exercise of the will to believe that God is good and to will what he wills. “Be it done to me according to thy word.” “Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.” We may not have here hope of avoidance of pain and suffering, of death. Our only hope may be, as was the Lord’s, deliverance from death by death. But we have here a burning desire which can pull us forward, we have here luminous images to light our way, the twin poles of a young virgin of Nazareth bowing her head to Israel’s God in acceptance of his will, and that of her Son, bowing his head on the cross in the self-same acceptance.

It may be that both kinds of faith are necessary for us. It may be that one sort is deeper than another. It may well be, too, that one is more difficult than another. But if so, this is a mystery hid in the heart of the faithful man or woman. A mystery handled only by a wise father in God.

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