Incarnate Faith and Practical Actions
The readings for this Sunday are a demand that our faith and love become “incarnate” as deeds, rather than just words. Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him by concrete, practical steps toward “giving our life away” for the sake of the Gospel. We first hear Isaiah, who says boldly, “I have not rebelled, have not turned back…I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Faith that is incarnate, rather than simply an idea or a good wish, makes firm resolutions and takes practical risks. It moves forward with purpose and determination, rather than turning back in cowardice. It follows its words with actions, because a truly faithful person knows that, no matter what, God will save us and bring good out of every risk we take for his sake.
The psalm carries this confidence forward, proclaiming, “I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.” At the core of our faith, and hidden in the Old Testament figures, is the resurrection of the body. This was crucial for first century Christians, who risked life and limb to believe in Christ and proclaim the gospel. They could, like Christ, be beaten and killed. But they confidently strode forward through death and into everlasting life, knowing that all pain is fleeting compared to the immortal glory of the resurrection. Like Christians who are persecuted today, the early disciples didn’t just cling to the ideals of love and faith in Christ. They took practical risks and “enfleshed” their ideals with concrete actions and practical steps toward the cross.
This is James’ point in the epistle. This passage is often interpreted as saying, “You should feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” This isn’t wrong, but it risks losing the deeper analogy. Works are the food and clothing that nourish and protect faith. If a person has no clothes or food then good sentiments and well-wishes, however nice they sound, won’t nourish and protect him. Likewise, if our faith only exists as ideas and sentiments, it is weak and vulnerable, like a starving naked person, and it quickly shrivels up and dies. Without actions to follow up our faith, we could say anything we wanted yet never truly believe. We can all sit in our pews and sing “I believe I will walk with the Lord in the land of the living,” but if don’t risk our life – or at least our reputation – for our faith, then do we really believe?
We see this in the Gospel. On behalf of all of Jesus’ disciples, Peter makes a bold declaration of faith: “You are the Christ.” To publicly claim this title put one in danger of death at the hands of the Roman occupiers. So Jesus’ subsequent teaching, that “that the Son of Man must suffer greatly … and be killed,” would be the logical result of anyone making this claim. It is the last part, “…and rise after three days,” that is the most astounding.
Yet Peter doesn’t want Jesus to undergo ordinary human suffering. He wants him float above our painful condition, rather than clothe himself with it. But “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” so the incarnate Word must enter into real suffering. He would, in the end, rise again and “walk in the land of the living,” with our human frailty clothed in glory for all of eternity. But Peter couldn’t see eternity. He could only see humiliation, pain, and death – which looked like an eternity to him. For those in first century Palestine, the cross did not have some noble significance, as it does for us today when we see a crucifix in a church or around someone’s neck. It was not some heroic, sacrificial sign. It was not an ideal. It was a real, wooden torture instrument, that meant pure failure and humiliation. It was a hideous nightmare become real. And at the sight of it, Peter’s faith stumbled.
Even with the best of intentions, our words and noble sentiments can be left hanging naked in the air without any actions to clothe them. This is why Jesus once told St. Josemaría Escrivá in prayer, “Love is deeds, not sweet words and excuses.” This must be true of faith, too. Like Peter we are frequently filled with words, inspirations, and ideas about our relationship with Jesus. Yet when asked to put meat on the bones of our religion by making practical sacrifices, we balk and offer excuses instead of actions. We turn to false humility saying, “I’m not holy enough to make this sacrifice, to undertake this deed, to give up this comfort or attachment.” Instead of walking toward our suffering Jesus, we allow ourselves to be discouraged before we even begin to take small steps of faith and love.
If we are to make even the smallest practical step toward the cross, then our “human thinking” needs to die and give way to true faith and love, which are supernatural gifts given by God. We still must exercise these gifts through our human will, but we can make no progress without the humble admittance that we can do nothing without Christ. Instead of dashing forward or running away like Peter first did, we are to “set our face like flint” and take one humble step at a time right behind Jesus, our eyes fixed on him rather than our weakness. Where others see a harsh rebuke, we must discover a gentle invitation: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Yes Jesus, I want to follow you. You are my friend and my savior, and I want to walk forever in the land of the living with you. But I am weak, impetuous, prideful, and fickle. I need you to help me turn my faith into real, practical actions, even if they are the smallest sacrifices you’ve ever received.
Each step is an action. A series of actions forms a habit. And, little by little, with good habits of prayer and virtue, we walk into our vocations, which are simply the “enfleshed” way that we live out a life of self-gift in union with Jesus. They are the practical path to losing our life for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. We grow into our vocation gradually, with humble steps. And after we have grown into it, we continue walking every day, humbly saying “yes” to Christ not just with thoughts and words, but with concrete actions. This is what Peter finally did, after his frail humanity was clothed with the Holy Spirit’s grace at Pentecost. Trusting in the name of Jesus, rather than his own great ideas, Peter took bold steps forward in faith, and eventually gave his own life on a cross. Now he too is walking before the Lord in the land of the living.
So let’s ask the Lord to save us from “thinking as humans do,” and leaving our faith in the realm of words and ideas, unfed and unprotected. Let’s ask the Lord instead to give us the grace to think as “God does,” and then to clothe our thoughts with real, practical actions. What virtue is Christ inviting you to grow in? What sacrifice is he asking you to offer? What weakness does he want to heal in you? To what needs of those around you is he moving you to respond? Do you want your faith and love to remain naked ideals, or do you want them to be incarnate in practical action and robed with grace? Trust in Christ, pick up your cross, and take the next step forward with Him.
Image: Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way
Artist: Annibale Carracci
Copyright © The National Gallery, London