In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (v. 1) we find a kind of definition of faith which closely links this virtue with hope. Ever since the Reformation there has been a dispute among exegetes over the central word of this phrase, but today a way towards a common interpretation seems to be opening up once more. For the time being I shall leave this central word untranslated. The sentence therefore reads as follows: “Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen”. For the Fathers and for the theologians of the Middle Ages, it was clear that the Greek word hypostasis was to be rendered in Latin with the term substantia. The Latin translation of the text produced at the time of the early Church therefore reads: Est autem fides sperandarum substantia rerum, argumentum non apparentium—faith is the “substance” of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, using the terminology of the philosophical tradition to which he belonged, explains it as follows: faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo”—and thus according to the “substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence.
Spe Salvi 7
Reflection – OK, this may seem all very technical and dry, full of obscure points about language and long quotes in Latin and references to (horrors) Thomas Aquinas. The blog reader may be tempted to come back tomorrow when I am doing something simpler. Despair not – I come to make all things clear, if they are not yet so.
Basically, it means that we all live our lives in Advent, even as we celebrate the season of Christmas, prepare now to celebrate the Epiphany (the feast of the ‘appearing’ of God), and from there launch again into Ordinary Time and before we know it the Lent-Easter cycle.
Nonetheless, our Christian life here and now is intensely an Advent matter. Advent is the shortest of all seasons, yet it is the whole season of our life. That is, we are all pregnant, be we male or female. We all bear within us a life, an embryonic life, a beginning of a life that is very real, as real as can be, but very hidden. The condition of Mary in her nine months of pregnancy is a close analogue to the condition of the Christian through our years of life on this earth.
The ‘thing’ is already present—this thing which is the life of Christ being lived in our own lives. But it has not appeared yet, except in the precise same sense that those who have eyes to see recognize the life of the child in the swelling of the womb of the mother.
It really is the same sort of thing. Those who have eyes to see can recognize the signs of Christ’s life in the life of a disciple as it grows. Charity, mercy, generosity of heart, quickness to forgive, courage in bearing witness, steadfastness in bearing burdens, peace, joy—all of these are sure signs of Christ’s life growing in a human heart. When someone has been ‘very pregnant’ in their lives—showing!—we might call them a saint after they die.
But of course those who do not have eyes to see can deny all of the above, just as those who (alas!) do not wish to acknowledge it can deny the life of the child right until the moment it is born. I don’t mean to blog about abortion in this post, but we can see here an added dimension to the already tragic assault on human life: to refuse to admit a reality until it is seen in full blocks us off from the whole life of faith in its essential nature.
The life of faith, this hidden interior life of God in us, is so very much like pregnancy. We bear within us a life that is not our own, that our own autonomous will did not create of itself, that is a fruit of God’s coming to us and his faithful love for us. This life will appear in the fullness of time in the blessed life of the saints in heaven. But it is already real, already wanting to grow and expand and stretch us, perhaps cause us some discomfort and pain, even, but always in service of this new life blossoming in us.