La Messe de fondation de l’Ordre des Trinitaires, Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614–1685), 1666, Madrid; The Louvre, Paris. Photo by Jean Louis Mazieres

Fr Neil’s homily for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, 4 July 2021

He could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief.

In our Gospel reading we see Christ standing in the same tradition as the prophets before him. He is not only rejected here, but will eventually be abandoned by most of his disciples and be hung upon a tree.

Christ marvels at the unbelief of those who have known him from his earliest years. It seems that they could not see what was in front of them.

I am reminded of the dwarves in the stable at the end of C.S. Lewis’ book The Last Battle. They are so sceptical of what is before their eyes that they imprison themselves in an inescapable delusion. Despite the light, joy, goodness and beauty around them they only see darkness, sorrow and dross.

Although Christ stood before the crowd as the ‘one who speaks the words of eternal life’¹, and shows all the expected marks of God’s Messiah, they could not accept him. You get the feeling that they are thinking, “Who do you think you are? You’ve come from nowhere special and now you are speaking and teaching as one with authority.” Perhaps they still have the image of the boy who was the son of Mary and Joseph, whose wider family is well known.

The people’s scepticism meant they could put no faith in the Christ who stood before them. They would continue to cry out to God for a messiah to come and save them while rejecting the very answer to their prayer that was right in their midst. It is a bit like the man lost at sea who cried out to God to save him. A fishing boat comes by and offers to help but he refuses saying, “no thanks, God will save me.” Then a yacht comes along offering help, and again he refuses, confident God will answer his prayer. Then a helicopter comes by offering to pull him out of the sea but again he refuses the help. The man drowns and when he sees God he indignantly asks, “Why didn’t you answer my prayer and save me?” God replies, “Well I sent you a fishing boat, a yacht and a helicopter. What more did you want?!”

There is a great deal of talk about faith in the Gospels. Last week’s reading is a case in point, where Christ says “do not fear, only believe.”² Their lack of faith, their disbelief, meant that Christ would do no mighty works or miracles among them.

It is important to make the distinction that the faith required is less about a particular miracle and much more to do with having faith in the one who is able to perform such miracles. Aslan, in Lewis’ novel produces miracles for the dwarves but they refuse to acknowledge that they are no longer in the stable, but in the new Narnia. Aslan explains “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in, that they cannot be taken out.” In other words our faith that encounters the miraculous and divine is contingent on placing that faith in who Christ is and what he had done in bringing about the salvation of the world. All the miracles in the world will not convince those trapped in their own scepticism.

If we do not trust and believe the creeds and seek to make them our own, we will diminish our capacity to encounter the Divine and experience the miraculous. The lack of faith leads to a loss of the divine and is sadly reflective in so much liturgical practice. If we lose the belief in the reality of Christ being made present — body, soul and divinity — in the mass, then why bother with adoration? And what’s the point of the sacrament of confession, anointing, marriage, confirmation and even baptism, bar being cultural rites of passage? The ordained deacon and priest are reduced to the function of a sort of spiritual social worker.

If we have lost the faith that Christ is our Saviour, then the sacraments are not the means of divine grace: they are reduced to words of comfort for some or the means of self-flagellation for the mentally disturbed. The loss of the divine means the Church’s liturgy is reduced to a mere social construct for the benefit of the community, rather than encountering the living God and offering him fitting praise and worship.

If our first conscious or subconscious questions are: “Did I enjoy mass; was it entertaining; and what did I get out of it?” rather than recognising “I’ve come to offer thanksgiving to God, to receive his merciful graces, to bear witness to the power of Christ’s death and resurrection and to glimpse the transcendent glory of God”, then we are on slippery ground.

The real danger is that the focus becomes Self alone. This enlarges our problems rather than reduces them because we aim to transform society around us, to suit our needs and after our own image rather than seek the conforming of our lives to a life of holiness to the honour and glory of God.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that our faith is to be in Christ — his passion, resurrection, ascension and divinity. Only then will our eyes be open to see and encounter the miraculous which opens up the possibility to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit for our healing, conversion and salvation as children of God and citizens of heaven.

¹ John 6:68
² Mark 5:36

The editorial title is from Mark 9:24.