Everyday, people are tortured and killed because of their religious and political beliefs. Many of them are Christians, who are willing to die rather than renounce their faith.
This has been true throughout history, and it is a poignant aspect of the Christmas and Epiphany Gospels. Peter Koenig’s wonderful tryptic painting, Christmas—Epiphany, helps make this clear. The death of Jesus is intimately connected with the death and anticipated resurrection of others. The Lamb that was slain becomes the Temple at the center of the New Jerusalem, from which the rivers of the water of life flow. The wine at the wedding at Cana prefigures the same supernatural refreshment for which St. Stephen was willing to die. And the Twelve Days of Christmas also include Holy Innocents’ Day, the feast commemorating those killed by Herod in his search to eliminate the baby Jesus as a potential rival. Jesus’ Baptism declares his vocation, a vocation which involves each of these things and more.
An equally real but more subtle threat is increasingly evident in our society ~ radical secularism. When the culture around us no longer supports our religious faith, it becomes intolerant. People then begin to act with hostility against us. As a result, at least two things happen. We soften our religious commitments so we fit-in better with others. And, we lose confidence that the Gospel has world-wide significance, for all human beings. As a result, we draw back from practicing our faith, a faith that has public implications. We then retreat to private beliefs that now only have personal and spiritual meaning.
Think for a moment about John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” The Greek behind these words has sweeping implications. For God so loved the cosmos (the whole creation), that he gave his only Son… in order that the cosmos might be saved through him. In other words, for John, the Gospel has universal implications, not just personal, spiritual significance. This is a gospel for which we might be willing to die, precisely because it is first of all a gospel for which we are willing to live.
It is imprecise and misleading therefore to say that ‘faith changes the world.’ Instead, we should say that God changes the world, in part through people of faith. We have faith in the God who created, and then inhabited, the whole cosmos. And, God has acted for the sake of the whole cosmos.
Peter Koenig’s painting is reproduced here with the artist’s kind permission. This and other examples of his religious artwork can be seen by visiting the website of his parish church, where much of it is displayed (click here). This post is based on my homily for The Baptism of Christ, January 13, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.