Today Jesus asks each one of us: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?”
How do I hear this question? Is it urgent or is it boring? Is it abstract or desperately concrete? Does it change the way I live or just confirm me in my ways? Does it encourage repentant humility before God, or do I echo the arrogance of the world and say, “Relax, Jesus. You’ve got it all wrong. God doesn’t expect anything of us. I mean: aren’t we all children of God?”
How, then, do I hear Jesus’s question? In my heart, is it alive or dead?
So much of how we respond to Jesus’s question revolves around how we understand the question of faith, perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in everyday talk. What is faith? Is it static or is it dynamic? Is it something we just have or something that can grow? Is it something safe or something that can be lost? Is it up to God? Me? Or does it speak of some kind of cooperation between God and humanity? Is it worked out in peace and quiet, or in the furnace of spiritual warfare?
Well, our first reading gives us a powerful image of faith, one that becomes even brighter when we understand what it points to. I don’t think we can deal with everything in it today, so we will have to pass over much like the them of violence, the significance of Moses’s staff or even the rock that is placed under him. What I do want to focus on is the image of Moses with his arms extended.
One of the first reactions to this image might be: how stupid! Why doesn’t God just beat the Amalekites? Why have Moses keeping his arms up as a condition of victory? And you hear the same kind of comments in relation to prayer often. What’s the point? If God is all knowing and loving, why bother with prayer? But this is not stupid when we think about it more thoroughly, about the whole story of creation and salvation. God wills our cooperation. God creates us to be free. This is the whole logic of the Incarnation. God commands that we participate in our own creation and our own redemption.
But of course as we know from the Mass, Moses is not just keeping his arms up for no reason. This is the posture of prayer. Our first and most important cooperation with God then is praying. There is no such thing therefore as a Christian who does not pray. And as with Moses, prayer is defined by vigilance and effort. We must attend to it, and be serious about it. This is the first lesson of this image of Moses.
But there is another crucial component of prayer implicit in this image. Prayer inspires others and is also supported by others. I think I have mentioned before about the fractal nature of the spiritual life, that the parts look like the whole and the whole looks like the parts, kind of like how parts of a tree resemble the whole of the tree. There is a great image of this at St Colman’s. In the sacristy, there is an altar cross. The cross has little crosses budding out from it. I think one of the crosses on the roof of St Mary’s is similar.
We can see the same thing happening with Moses. He keeps his arms up in prayer. His friends then keep their arms up to support his arms. Their prayers are inspired by his but also support his efforts. This is the nature of the spiritual life. Throughout history, mystics have had an abiding vision of the cosmic significance of prayer, that an act in communion with God can bear fruits across time and space. I remember when I used to go to confession at St Francis in the city, one of the priests there used to say as a penance please pray for the person coming in after you.
However, the true meaning of this image of Moses is still greater. When Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth”, the answer as always is found on the Cross. This is the reality that Moses points to. Jesus on the Cross raised above the battle, (as so beautifully depicted by Tintoretto at the Scuola di San Rocco). Jesus’s arms nailed in an act of blessing that lasts forever, as the artist who carved our stations of the cross so beautifully symbolises. And finally: Jesus inspiring the Church to pray, as personified in our Lady and St John, who take the place of Aaron and Hur.
When we pray, this is what is happening. In the Mass, this is what is happening. We are fighting in the army of our Lord. We are being fed by his prayers and we are feeding his body with our own prayers, our own prayers shoots budding from the great tree of life.
In our Mass today then, we might pray: does my life look like this? When Jesus asks me today’s question, when the Son of Man arrives at the door of my heart, will he find any faith? Am I feeding the Body of Christ with my own prayers? Am I offering my life as bread to made Eucharistic through the power of the Holy Spirit?