Considering how many people read these commentaries every week, I receive very little feedback. But a few years ago, one of my columns was an exception; the one in which I referred to the migration of Monarch butterflies as an example of faith. No doubt the recent release of the I MAX film The Flight of the Butterflies will again stir interest in that annual phenomenon, making the author of Wisdom very happy. He or she was convinced we can discover a lot about God's behavior by studying patterns in nature.
The amazing part of the Monarchs' yearly trek is that it takes four or five generations to complete a single migration. No one butterfly can pull off the entire trip by itself. Each generation is programmed to go to a place it's never been before. If it doesn't go, the migration can't be completed.
Though our Wisdom author doesn't refer to nature in today's first reading, the idea of someone doing something out of sheer faith - without seeing the end result - is certainly the passage's main thrust. Without knowing anything about a miraculous crossing of the sea and an eventual entry into the Promised Land, the Israelite slaves still performed the rituals Yahweh insisted they carry out. None who celebrated that first Passover ever got to Canaan. They, like generations of butterflies, died before the whole trip was complete.
But, in reading the book of Exodus, we must also remember that many of those Hebrew captives constantly complained before and during their actual trek through the wilderness. If these malcontents had their druthers, they'd never have left Egypt - and their descendants would have remained slaves instead of becoming free Israelites.
That's why the author of Hebrews stresses the aspect of faith in our faith-ancestors. "All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar…." Each generation, from Abraham and Sarah on down, did what their faith in Yahweh moved them to do, without ever knowing exactly what the end result of their faith actions would be.
Of course, the authors of Wisdom and Hebrews held a huge advantage over the people about whom they wrote: they were looking backward, not forward. It's far easier to see God working in our lives after the work has been complete than it is to notice God's presence in things we're simply doing out of faith, long before the end is in sight.
The end certainty wasn't in sight for Luke's community. Among other things, they were still trying to figure out their unexpected switch from being a Jewish church to becoming a Gentile church. But even more important, now convinced that Jesus' second coming wasn't going to take place in their lifetime, they had to deal with an unknown future. Spending their entire natural lives as other Christs hadn't been part of their original commitment to the risen Jesus. Though they believed the Father was "giving them the kingdom," a lot of the details had yet to be worked out. Yet they still did what the risen Jesus expected them to do - every day.
I once thought, during and immediately after Vatican II, that I knew what to expect from my church in the days to come: constant and meaningful reform. My ministry of helping in that reform was fairly clear.
More and more today I identify with those generations of butterflies who never know what to expect. I simply continue to do what I think God wants me to do, trusting that because of my actions, someday, in the distant future, my church might actually achieve that reform, and I'll somehow have played a part in it.