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On Abraham's Faith
"Saying 'I believe in God' means founding my life on Him"
VATICAN CITY, January 23, 2013 (Zenit.org) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In this Year of Faith, I would like to start today to reflect with you on the Creed, the solemn profession of faith which accompanies our lives as believers. The Creed begins, "I believe in God." It is a fundamental affirmation, deceptively simple in its essentiality, but one that opens onto the infinite world of the relationship with the Lord and with his mystery. Believing in God implies adherence to Him, the welcoming of his Word and joyful obedience to His revelation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "Faith is a personal act - the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself" (no. 166). Being able to say that one believes in God is therefore both a gift - God reveals himself, he comes to meet us - and a commitment, it is divine grace and human responsibility, in an experience of dialogue with God who, out of love, "speaks to men as friends" (Dei Verbum, 2); he speaks to us so that, in faith and with faith, we may enter into communion with Him.
Where can we listen to his Word? The Holy Scripture is fundamental, in which the Word of God makes itself audible for us and nourishes our life as "friends" of God. The entire Bible recounts the revelation of God to humanity, the whole Bible speaks about faith and teaches us faith by telling a story in which God carries out his plan of redemption and comes close to us men, through many bright figures of people who believe in Him and entrust themselves to Him, up to the fullness of revelation in the Lord Jesus.
A beautiful passage relating to this context is chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews, which we just heard. Here it speaks of faith and highlights the great biblical figures who have lived it, becoming a model for all believers: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen" (11:1). The eyes of faith are thus able to see the invisible and the heart of the believer can hope beyond all hope, just like Abraham, of whom Paul says in Romans that he "believed, hoping against hope" (4:18).
And it is precisely on Abraham that I would like to focus my attention, because he is the first major reference point for talking about faith in God: Abraham the great patriarch, the exemplary model, the father of all believers (cf. Rom 4:11-12). The Letter to the Hebrews presents him in the following way: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God"(11:8-10).
The author of Hebrews refers here to the call of Abraham, narrated in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. What does God ask of this great patriarch? He asks him to leave his country and go to the country that he will show him, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Gen 12:1). How would we respond to an invitation like that? It is, in fact, a departure in the dark, not knowing where God will lead him; it is a journey that calls for a radical obedience and trust, accessible only through faith. But the darkness of the unknown - where Abraham must go - is illuminated by the light of a promise; God adds to his command a reassuring word that opens up before Abraham a future of life in its fullness: "I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:2-3).
The blessing, in Holy Scripture, is linked primarily to the gift of life that comes from God, and manifests itself primarily in fertility, in a life that is multiplied, passing from generation to generation. And the blessing is linked also to the experience of owning a land, a stable place to live and grow in freedom and security, fearing God and building a society of men loyal to the Covenant, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (cf. Ex 19:6).
So Abraham, in the divine plan, is destined to become the "father of a multitude of nations" (Gen 17:5; cf. Rom 4:17-18) and to enter into a new land in which to live. Yet Sarah, his wife, is barren, she is unable to have children; and the country to which God leads him is far from his native land, it is already inhabited by other peoples, and will never truly belong to him. The biblical narrator emphasizes this, though very discreetly: when Abraham arrived at the place of God's promise, "at that time the Canaanites were in the land" (Gen 12:6). The land that God gives to Abraham does not belong to him, he is a stranger and will remain so forever, with all that this entails: not aspiring to possess, always feeling his own poverty, seeing everything as a gift. This is also the spiritual condition of those who agree to follow Christ, of those who decide to start off, accepting his call, under the sign of his invisible but powerful blessing. And Abraham, the "father of believers," accepts this call, in faith. St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans: "Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become 'the father of many nations,' according to what was said, 'So numerous shall your descendants be.' He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised"(Rom 4:18-21).
Faith leads Abraham to tread a paradoxical path. He will be blessed, but without the visible signs of blessing: he receives the promise to become a great nation, but with a life marked by the barrenness of his wife Sarah; he is brought to a new homeland but he will have to live there as a foreigner, and the only possession of the land that will be granted him will be that of a plot to bury Sarah (cf. Gen 23:1-20). Abraham was blessed because, in faith, he knows how to discern the divine blessing by going beyond appearances, trusting in God's presence even when his ways seem mysterious to him.
What does this mean for us? When we affirm: "I believe in God," we say, like Abraham: "I trust You; I entrust myself to You, Lord," but not as Someone to run to only in times of difficulty or to whom to dedicate a few moments of the day or of the week. Saying "I believe in God" means founding my life on Him, letting his Word orient me each day, in the concrete choices, without fear of losing something of myself. When, in the Rite of Baptism, we are asked three times: "Do you believe?" in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church and the other truths of faith, the triple response is in the singular: "I believe," because it is my personal existence that must go through a turning point with the gift of faith, it is my life that must change, convert. Each time we attend a Baptism we should ask ourselves how we are living out the great gift of faith each day.
Abraham, the believer, teaches us faith; and, as a stranger on earth, shows us our true homeland. Faith makes us pilgrims on earth, placed within the world and its history, but on the way to the heavenly homeland. Believing in God therefore makes us bearers of values that often do not coincide with what's fashionable or the opinions of the times, it asks us to adopt criteria and engage in conduct which do not belong to the common way of thinking. The Christian should not be afraid to go "against the grain" in order to live his faith, resisting the temptation to "conform". In many societies God has become the "great absentee" and in his place there are many idols, first of all the autonomous '"I". The significant and positive advances in science and technology also have caused in man an illusion of omnipotence and self-sufficiency, and a growing self-centeredness has created many imbalances in interpersonal relationships and social behaviors.
However, the thirst for God (cf. Ps 63:2) has not vanished and the Gospel message continues to resonate through the words and deeds of many men and women of faith. Abraham, the father of believers, continues to be the father of many children who are willing to walk in his footsteps and set out on the way, in obedience to the divine call, trusting in the benevolent presence of the Lord and welcoming his blessing to become a blessing for all. It is the blessed world of faith to which we are all called, to walk without fear following the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is sometimes a difficult journey, that knows even trial and death, but that opens onto life, in a radical transformation of reality that only the eyes of faith can see and savor in abundance.
To say "I believe in God" leads us, then, to set off, to go out of ourselves continually, just like Abraham, to bring into the daily reality in which we live the certainty that comes to us from faith: the certainty, that is, of the presence of God in history, even today; a presence that brings life and salvation, and opens us to a future with Him for a fullness of life that will never diminish. Thank you.
I am following with concern the news coming from Indonesia, where a major flood has devastated the capital of Jakarta, causing casualties, thousands of displaced persons and extensive damage. I wish to express my closeness to the people affected by this natural disaster, assuring you of my prayers and encouraging solidarity so that no one may lack the required help.
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I extend a cordial welcome to the Italian-speaking pilgrims. I greet the religious, students and church groups. In particular I greet the faithful of the Diocese of Frazzanò, accompanied by the Bishop of Patti, Mons. Ignazio Zambito, on the occasion of the Jubilee Year for the anniversary of the death of St. Lawrence, your patron. For all, I wish that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity may stimulate in each community the commitment to constantly implore the Lord for the gift of unity and to live in fraternal communion.
[In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis for this Year of Faith, we now turn to the Creed, the solemn profession of our faith as Christians. At the beginning of the Creed, we say "I believe in God". Faith is our response to the God who first speaks to us, makes himself known and calls us to enter into communion with him. We hear God speaking to us in the Scriptures, which recount the history of his revelation, culminating in the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ. A central figure in this history of revelation is Abraham, the father and model of all believers (cf. Rom 4:11-12). Sustained by God's blessing and trusting in his promises, Abraham set off into the unknown. Like Abraham, we too are called to let faith shape our thoughts and actions in accordance with God's saving word, even when this runs contrary to the thinking and ways of this world. With the eyes of faith, we discern God's presence and his promise of eternal life beyond the realities of this present existence. In opening ourselves to God's blessing, we become in turn a blessing for others.
During this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I offer a warm welcome to the faculty and students of the Bossey Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies, with cordial good wishes for their studies. I also greet the military chaplains from the United Kingdom recently returned from Afghanistan. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, including the pilgrim and student groups from the United States, I invoke God's blessings of joy and peace.
[Concluding in Italian:]
Finally, an affectionate thought to young people, the sick and newlyweds. On Friday we will celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Dear young people, may the Apostle Paul be for you a model of integrity of life and of radicalism in the faith. Dear sick people, offer your sufferings for the cause of the unity of Christ's Church. And you, dear newlyweds, draw inspiration from the life of the Apostle of the Gentiles, recognizing the primacy of God and His love in your family life. Thank you and best wishes to you all.
[Translation by Peter Waymel]
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