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
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
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
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.