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Retreat on the Credo
The Joy of Believing
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
No one has spoken more eloquently or more often on the subject of joy than St. John the evangelist; the most dramatic quotations from the Savior on His wanting us to have joy are given us by John. John's teaching therefore on joy should be seen in relationship to his teaching on faith, and the clearest expression of the relationship between faith and joy is in the first four verses of the first letter of John that appropriately the Church quotes in the first reading in the Mass for his feast. It comes in four parts.
Part one. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity Who is Life came into the world where He could be heard and seen and watched and touched. Part two. This Second Person came into the world to give us a share in His own eternal life. Part three. Those who believe in the Second Person become Man are united by faith. And finally, the realization of sharing in this life with God and with one another is the main source of our joy.
God became tangible. We can talk about the Incarnation in many ways and the Church's literature is filled with analyses and commentaries on the Second Person having been sent by the Father into the world to become Man. But the single easiest way of describing the Incarnation is to say that God became tangible and visible and audible; in a word God Who is Infinite Spirit became sensibly perceptible. Our Christian faith is founded on this fact: that the invisible God has been made visible; Mary could see the Child she bore; God has taken on a body; that's why He needed a mother. So that, when the Man Jesus speaks we are hearing the voice of God, when He acts we are watching God in action. This is THE most fundamental mystery of our faith on which everything else depends. If we believe in this, insofar as we believe in this everything else is believable, without it nothing else is credible in Christianity.
Why the Incarnation? Why did God do it? He did it, John tells us, to give us a share in His own divine life. You might object: True. But could He not have given us a share in this life without becoming Man? Yes. But He wanted to do two things. He wanted His humanity to become the sacrament of His divinity. You see, the first sacrament is Jesus. A sacrament is something sensibly perceptible thru which divine grace is communicated. Very well. The primary sacrament of the new law is Jesus Christ. God wanted this humanity to be the channel by which He would communicate this divine life; and who are we to tell God He should have done it otherwise?
But secondly, He wanted us to earn this life by believing. All sanctifying grace, which is the life of God shared by us, comes uniquely through the humanity of Jesus, and we receive just as much of this divine life in our souls as we believe. What about a child baptized in infancy, isn't that an exception? No. There too faith is the indispensable precondition even for the valid conferral of baptism. So the infant newly born cannot make an act of faith, but someone has to, and unless someone does all you have is the pouring of water and the pronunciation of words; there is no sacrament of baptism without faith.
Faith then is the key to the supernatural life. Faith is the great preservative of this life. Faith is also a condition for the vitality of this life.
Just before Father McNamara left for Rome on Christmas Eve we had a very intimate two hour conversation. We talked mainly about faith. He agreed what priests most need in the world today is faith. And like priest like people. Unless the faith of priests is strong, how in God's name can you expect the faith of those who are to be faithful to be strong? I need not tell you how important it is to pray and sacrifice especially that God's priests might keep their faith. You don't have to guess, you know; that's why we are talking about faith.
The Christian community. Those who believe in the Incarnation are Christians. It is this faith that forms them into a Christian community. Where is the Church? That's easy; where there are believers. Where is the Christian community? Where there is a sharing of the Christian faith. Where are people, members of the living Mystical Body? Where there are believers that this Body has a Head and this Head is God become Man. You are not a Catholic because you claim to be one. You are a Catholic if you believe. And no one cheats here.
Joy is the result of faith. By way of prelude I might point out that God wants us, and John couldn't have been clearer in recalling Christ's insistence of the fact that God wants us to be happy not only in the life to come but in this life. I dare say if a person's life now were all dreary and weary and sad the very prospect of heaven would look pretty bleak. I cannot be more insistent, because Christ was so insistent, we are to be, not just become, we are to be happy. But you object: Me happy? Look at me! All sadness is man-made: all gladness is God-made. God wants us to be happy.
Our joy, however, has certain preconditions. The most basic of these conditions is faith. Let's look at it this way. Who are the unhappy people in this world? Are they not first of all people whose desires are not satisfied? Not surprising. People want money; They don't get it. What do you expect? They are unhappy. People want bodily health. They had it, they lost it, so they are unhappy. People want to be accepted by others, and they feel rejected, so they are unhappy. It is here that our faith is indispensable by telling us, and God had to reveal it, what we should desire. That's what Christ's beatitude is all about when He says "Happy are they who hunger and thirst for what is right, for the right things." But what are the right things? The things that God wants us to desire. And the most fundamental things that God wants us to desire is His grace, a share in His divine life. Well, I suppose I have God's grace, but You silly idiot! I have God's grace, but. There are no buts here! If I have God's friendship what under heaven else should I desire! No wonder I am unhappy!
Again, who are the unhappy people? Are they not the lonely? And the more crowded the city, I've discovered, the more loneliness among its inhabitants. I think the loneliest city in America is New York.
Faith tells us in spite of all appearances to the contrary, we who believe form a community of believers throughout the world, we form a body, we form, in God's own language, a family. But it takes faith to realize that there is a profound togetherness among those who believe of which there is no other earthly counterpart. There is no one on earth with whom we are more intimately united, with whom God's grace more closely associates us than our fellow believers.
The greatest joy on earth, I believe, is to share my spirit with another spirit who believes what I do. I believe this is one reason among others why there are religious communities. The joy of belonging, to know that in spite of our differences and God will make sure there are plenty otherwise what about the cross that He told us to carry? but with our faith we see behind the differences and often the painful eccentricities and we are happy, we are not alone, we share the one Jesus Christ.
Finally, who are the unhappy people? Aren't they the people who have nothing to look forward to, for whom the future is meaningless and dark and dark because meaningless?
During my five years of teaching at a State University in Michigan among the two thousand students that I taught was a young man, a senior, who came to me on an Easter Tuesday morning. He sat down in my office and proceeded to tell me why he was going to commit suicide before the week was over. He was president of his class, had received a rare scholarship to the law school in Harvard, brilliant, but had very little faith. Through hours of conversation I tried to stir what embers were left of his faith. I am happy to report he is still alive and he writes me every so often to thank me for keeping him alive.
It is our faith that tells us that this is not all there is to life. How could there be? What a charnel house of horror this world would be if all there was were what is. There is a future and a glorious future, but we must believe it. God is so kind, so understanding: He has us come into the world witless little babes to make sure that we don't for a moment suspect that somehow we brought ourselves into the world; then youth; adult strength; and then we wane. I like the expression: sunset years. All God's way of preparing us. But we must believe that the life we already possess now on earth we shall continue to have into the endless centuries of eternity.
This joy which depends on our faith will be as strong and as great and as imperturbable as our faith is strong.
Dear St. John, the beloved disciple, help us to see with the eyes of your vision so that like you we might one day no longer have to believe but behold and be embraced by the One Whom now we see only with the eyes of faith.
Conference transcription from a retreat
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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