Paolo Veronese (1528-1588)
It was my second Ash Wednesday service of the day, the evening one. We had already received the ashes on the forehead — also my second of the day — and were into the responsive "Litany of Penitence." Each Ash Wednesday over the last five years I have heard these words of penitence.
About mid-way through this litany when we confess our various sins and shortcomings, the priest recited and I read the confession line: "Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us." Then, along with all the others, responded: We confess to you, Lord.
The words commend the faith that is in us leaped off the page. Commend. An interesting word. And, faith that is in us. While obviously I had heard these words many times, they hit me as a revelation. Not sure what the revelation was, however. But, it seemed important.
The following Friday, I was in Pittsburgh, PA, and, as I try to do when there, went to the 12:05 Eucharist service at the downtown Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal). The young priest began his brief homily by referring to his own Ash Wednesday service and being struck by part of the Litany Of Penitence: Our failure to commend the faith that is in us. Wow!
I don't recall that he elaborated on the topic; he may have, but my mind was occupied on the coincidence of our thoughts. After the service, I told the priest that I write a spiritual-type blog and like him, I had been struck by that same phrase. "I wonder what it means?" I said. He said something like it was difficult, especially the commend part, and he wasn't really sure. But, then smiled and said, "I think what it means is that you're supposed to write about this!"
So, here it goes. My thoughts: Commend the faith that is in us.
First, I'm going to do something that probably isn't liturgically legal; I'm going to add another word. Our failure to commend the faith that is already in us.
While many of us would say we have faith, many would also add something like, "but, I need much more faith; mine is not enough." Or, "My faith is not near as strong as hers; mine is small and weak in comparison." I see many Christians go around with long faces, beating themselves up because they see their faith as lacking. Yes, we do need to realize and confess that our faith is not what we know it could be. (If not, why have Lent?) But, I think we get off base when we start looking at faith in terms of quantity ... or of strength.
Of course our faith needs to grow, to deepen. But, faith is not like a bank account where the important thing is amount. I'm paraphrasing a bit, but I can envision Jesus saying, "Hey, don't belittle your faith. Look over there at that mustard plant; you probably can't even see its seeds. But, if you have faith — even as small as one of those tiny seeds — you can do great things! You don't need a pound of faith." (See Matthew 17:20; Luke17:6.) Maybe you want to have more faith — and that's a good thing — but for now, use what you've got!
Pope Francis, in a small, but powerful book, The Name of God is MercyThe Name of God is Mercy, Random House, 2016. shares a neat story, Looking for the Smallest Opening, which I think, with a bit of a stretch, applies here:
A priest was to hear the confession of a young German soldier captured by French partisans and sentenced to die. The soldier confesses his love of women and the many amorous adventures he has had. The priest tells him that he has to repent to obtain forgiveness and absolution. The soldier says he can't seriously repent because he enjoyed what he did and, if he had the chance, would do it again. "How can I repent?" The priest wants to absolve the man, and tries a few other ways of wording it, but the honest man says he can't repent; he's not even sorry.
Finally, the priest has an inspiration: "But are you sorry that you are not sorry?" The young man looks at the priest and then says impulsively, "Yes, I am sorry that I am not sorry!" Aha! The narrator says, "In other words, he apologizes for not repenting. The door was opened just a crack, allowing absolution to come in..."
Maybe, just realizing that the faith we have — though it may be as small as a mustard seed (or the size of a crack in the door) — is sufficient to do what God calls us to do. We need to commend the faith already in us. Webster gives one definition of "commend" as: Trusting as worthy of confidence or notice. In the Litany of Penitence, what we are confessing is not that we have little faith; but that we do have faith and are not using it.
And, how do we "commend" the faith that is in us? One way, as in the previous paragraph, we don't sit, wait, and pray for more faith to do God's work; we use the faith God has already given us. "But [God] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you ...'" (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV) (Peterson's The Message, says it, "My grace is enough; it's all you need.") (I realize grace and faith are not the same thing. But, I think Paul's words here might also apply to faith.) And, perhaps using the seed of faith we already have causes that faith to grow; not using it causes it to wither. Maybe it's "Use it or lose it!"
I think commend the faith in us also implies that through our words and actions we let others know we are people of faith. I don't mean preaching-on-the-street-corner-type words and actions, but in what we say and do in the everydays of our life ... in Ordinary Time. If, in conversation, a colleague makes a racial slur or uses a derogatory term for a certain group, and I am silent and let it slide, I doubt I am commending the faith in me. If a schoolmate bullies a handicapped boy and I stand there with my hands in my pockets; that doesn't sound like commending the faith that is in me. My town council votes to move the trash dump to the edge of the low-rent area, and I don't join the protest, saying, "You can't fight city hall." ... our failure to commend the faith that is in us; We confess to you, Lord."
I chose the top picture of the centurion because Jesus held him up as a man of great faith. "Truly, I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith." (Matt. 8:5-10; Luke 7:1-10) Few would recognize this centurion as having great faith. He wasn't Jewish, was one of the hated Romans, probably didn't know anything about scripture, and likely didn't know the fine points of Jesus' teachings. But, it seems he had a bit of faith that really mattered: Apparently, he knew Jesus was God. And, he simply believed that Jesus had the power to heal his beloved servant. And Jesus commended him and his faith — the faith that was already in this centurion — calling his faith unmatched in Israel.
While writing about this faith that is already in us topic, I wondered about many people "out there," outside our churches who do not think of themselves as people of faith. I wonder. Might there be a small seed of faith there? I want to ponder this and Reflect on that next time.
But, for now, I want to take time and think about the faith that is already in me. I hope you might want to consider the faith that you know — or even just suspect — is in you. Perhaps you wonder whether you do have any of this stuff we call faith — even a trace of it. If so, maybe you realize, too, that you really want to have faith. Perhaps wanting to have faith is a bit of faith itself. Maybe it's like the unrepentant prisoner in the pope's story who realizes he is sorry he is not sorry and that unlocks the door to absolution. Being able to cry, "I want faith!" may just be that small crack in the door that opens a pathway to faith.
Next Ash Wednesday, I'm sure once again I'll confess that I fail to commend that faith already in me. Maybe though, when we say, We confess to you, Lord, I can add, "but, I'm getting better at it. I'm doing more with what I already have."