The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Faith in the familiar

"Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown,
and among their own kin, and in their own house."
Mark 6:4

Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes. We think we know a person, have him or her figured out, and are familiar with his or her background, thought processes, attributes. Nothing—we think—that he or she can do, or say, will surprise us.

Impossible! No person thoroughly knows another—no matter how close they are, how much time they spend with one another, or how long they have known one another. Even the most intimate of companions or spouses have unexamined or developing aspects of themselves. One’s skin contains only one person, and even he or she doesn't fully comprehend who that person is or will become. Only the Creator of all knows all, as recounted in Psalm 139:

O Lord, it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
… Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days
that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

When we human beings think we really know someone (thinking we are God?), we tend to miss or dismiss their potential, to impose superficial limits on our own perspective (and that of others)—and, quite possibly, on the capabilities of the person in question. We observe someone and then shake our heads, cluck our tongues, and say, “He’s always been that way.”

Another opportunity lost!

I once worked with someone who, at the beginning of the shift, would smile, rub his hands, and proclaim, “I’m excited about the possibilities!” It was an inside joke in a difficult work environment, but he also really meant it. His was a voice of optimism in what could be an otherwise negative atmosphere. His proclamation gave me hope—and no small measure of amusement.

Such an attitude opens doors, presents fresh opportunities, and brings to light new perspectives. At its core, this is faith, pure and simple.

Applying this to our relationship with a person we may think we know all too well, we should ask ourselves: Can I allow myself to be excited about the possibilities; to be open to a new encounter with the same old, same old; to see and hear the presence of Christ within another person despite (or because of) all that I think I know about that person?

In the gospels, Jesus tells us that we are to find him in one another (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). So, in this light, we also should ask ourselves: Am I able to have faith in Christ’s presence in the familiar, in what and whom I know (or think I know)?

Even Jesus was taken for granted by those who knew him, as illustrated in Mark’s Gospel (6:1-6). Familiarity—even with Jesus—bred contempt. Jesus attempts to proclaim the Good News in his native place, but is met with scorn by those who have known him for quite some time: “Where did this man get all this? … Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” In other words: “Who does he think he is? We know him, where he came from. He’s got some nerve trying to tell us what’s what!”

And so Jesus laments, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Those who were (arguably) most familiar with Jesus exhibited a remarkable lack of faith. Because of this, we are told that Jesus “could do no deed of power there … He was amazed at their unbelief.”

Familiarity is often an obstacle to faith—for all of us. And without faith, we will not experience God’s presence and mighty works. We do well to regularly ask ourselves: Do I too easily dismiss the familiar (whether it’s a person, thing, or circumstance? Or do I look in faith for the possibilities?

As flawed human beings, we tend to place a disproportionate amount of belief in strength, outward beauty, and wealth. When someone seemingly without such qualities—even Jesus—presents us with a prophetic challenge to look with an open heart at what and whom is all too familiar, it is easy to overlook, dismiss, or scorn. We often forget that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that such power is the only remedy for the original sin of human pride. In this way—embracing weakness—God became man, was born of a virgin, was quietly raised in humble circumstances, performed mighty deeds and taught great truths within the ordinariness of human living, was betrayed and crucified as a common criminal…and then was resurrected.

Jesus’ words call each of us to look with the eyes of faith at everything and everyone around us, to see the presence of Christ, to detect brand-new possibilities within the familiar, and to acknowledge the power inherent in the “weakness” of another. What can this familiar person, this thing, this circumstance, teach me today? We are called to hear the prophetic witness of the Good News from the most unlikely of sources, and to acknowledge that as much as we know, we really don’t know… Except, that is, through faith in the Person of Christ, who is all in all (cf. Ephesians 1:23). When we allow him to enter our hearts, we can then ask, as did the inhabitants of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Who is this? (Matthew 21:10). Then, the knowledge of who Jesus is will truly reveal us in relation to God and one another.

Through faith, the power of God’s Word—Jesus Christ—is made perfect in what is weak and familiar.

--Adapted from Grace in the Wilderness
by Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.
© 2013, Abbey Press Publications

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