Every month I enjoy reading our Diocesan newspaper, Fairfield County Catholic. One of their excellent writers, Thomas Hicks, contributed an excerpt from N, T, Wright’s book, Hebrews for Everyone. His message about growing in the faith really struck me and is as appropriate for today as the Letter to the Hebrews was two thousand years ago. It follows below.
The Letter to the Hebrews can be quite intimidating. It was not written by St. Paul, the author is unknown, and it is not a letter, but a sermon. For many Catholics, Hebrews has become the unknown text, yet Hebrews is one of the most meaningful texts in the New Testament. The writer of Hebrews has much to say to Catholics today. It was written for Christians who were tempted to fall away from the faith. The writer seeks to bolster their faith and encourage them to persevere. As one commentator on Hebrews stated: “Prepare to be changed when you drink deeply from Hebrews. It will leave you better than when you started.”
There’s a grand opening to the Letter. “At various times in the past and in various ways God has spoken to our ancestors through the prophets. But in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through His Son, the Son He has appointed to inherit everything and through whom He made everything there is. He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of His nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command (1:1-3). (Two other New Testament writings have powerful, memorable beginnings: John 1:1-5 and First John 1:1-5.)
In Hebrews, Christ is described as “the perfect copy of God’s nature.” This asserts that Christ shares in everything that God is in His divine nature. Thus we look to Christ for the full reve- lation of the divine nature. We’re told that Jesus not only calls the universe into existence, he con- stantly sustains it by his powerful word.
The preacher tells how through his own death and ressurection, Christ takes away the power of death and “delivers all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (2:14-15). He tells his readers how in Christ they have a high-priest who enables them with confidence to draw near to the throne of God and receive mercy and find grace to help them in time of need (4:16). He is giving reasons for staying with the faith.
Then in chapter 5 we meet a sudden and surprising passage. In verse 12 he suddenly tells his readers that the major problem is that they need milk, not solid food. It’s a remarkable rebuke that must have burst upon its hearers like a sudden cold shower. The Preacher clearly wants to wake them up. He accuses them of being “sluggish” in their willingness to learn more about the faith. He is echoing St. Paul who in First Corinthians 3:1-2 made the same criticism: “I could only address you as people who are mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”
The author of Hebrews must have known his audience quite well, to be able to make his analysis about where they were intellectually and spiritually, and to have the courage to say it straight to them. He tells them that every- one who drinks milk is unskilled in the word of God.
Such people are just babies. Mature people need solid food (5:12).
A commentator on these words from the Letter to the Hebrews writes the following:
“In our churches today we need to recognize this same tendency. It is one thing for people who are genuinely young in the faith to say ‘let’s keep it simple and easy.’ It is quite another thing for people who have been Catholic for some time to say, or imply, ‘We’re too lazy to do that.’ Learning more about the Christian faith is a way of growing in strength in our praying, our living, our work. Holding back from such learning perhaps with a false humility of ‘I’m not good at understanding these things’ when we really mean ‘I can’t be bothered to try,’ which is a way of saying that we want to remain spiritual babies. The writer of Hebrews tells his readers that they ought to grow up to the stage where they can talk intelligently with those who are younger in the faith. They ought to have been on solid food some time, but they still seem to need more milk.
“There are the Catholic ABCs, the rudimentary teachings, some basics. Most of our congregations don’t even know much about them. Many in our churches couldn’t tell you why we baptize people, what precisely the resurrection is. It’s not, I think, that people learned the ABCs long ago, and forgotten it. No: they haven’t ever learned it in the first place. And the writer of Hebrews
wants them to go deeper, to teach them more developed and wide-ranging truths.”
In particular, the author of Hebrews and the commentator on his sermon want to see grown-up Christian people: people and communities who have learned deeply about the faith. It is important to remind people that there is such a thing as maturity in the faith, that they should be seeking it, and that mature people normally need, and indeed prefer, solid food. With solid food one experiences new
kinds of life and love; you experience the Bible like a long cool- drink on a hot day, or like solid food when you haven’t realized how hungry you were.
The commentator in Hebrews continues: “After people have learned the ABCs of the Christian faith, they must go on from there. Most do not. What’s gone wrong? There’s been a collapse in teach- ing the faith. There is a massive failure on the part of Catholic educators, preachers, catechists and evangelists. I have come to believe that the 10-minute homily on a Sunday morning is not sufficient for Catholics to grow in their faith. Usually, the homilies give trite rehashes of some ABCs. Many of our sermons are couched in predictable words. The majority of people who have drifted away from the Church have left not in anger but in disappointment. Many say: ‘I never felt that my spiritual needs were being met.’”
Pope Francis often speaks of wanting an Adult Church.
Research claims that, among Catholics, attempts to offer solid Bible Studies and lectures are attended by less than one-half of one percent.
The claim is made that reverent actions of believers are just as effective, if not more so, as tools of catechesis. There is some truth to this, but far from the whole truth. As the author of Hebrews recognized, steadfast faithfulness needs more than that.
Cf. N.T.Wright, Hebrews For Everyone, John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, pp.51-58.