It's unfortunate that Sunday's first reading (Mic 5: 1-4) contains the only Micah oracle proclaimed during our weekend liturgies. It gives the impression this prophet is concerned solely with predicting the coming of Jesus.

Among serious readers of the Hebrew Scriptures, Micah is known for his stance on social justice and his attacks on magical elements in the liturgy, and not for any predictions of future Christian events.

Often classified as a "prophet of doom," Micah doesn't hold much hope that his people can change from professing and practicing a God-controlling faith and develop a real relationship with Yahweh. So he persistently dwells on the consequences of their lack of conversion.

True faith

Yet in Sunday's reading, he expresses a rare hope: If his people recognize and follow the religious insights of one special Davidic king, they'll achieve the peace they're seeking. Of course, he never mentions the king's name; and since all Davidic kings trace their genealogies back to Bethlehem (David's hometown), Micah's prediction could refer to almost any royal leader who teaches true faith in Yahweh.

That leads us to ask, "What's true faith?"

The authors of both the Letter to the Hebrews and Luke/Acts basically agree on a definition.

Our Hebrews author (Heb 10: 5-10) first tells his readers what true faith isn't. He eliminates a practice most Jews believed to be an essential act of faith: "holocausts and sin offerings." Jerusalem temple liturgy revolved around offering such sacrifices, "Good Jews" believed Yahweh wanted them to take part in these rituals as a way of showing their complete dedication to God.

Yet the writer notes that such acts aren't part of Jesus' definition of faith. The Galilean carpenter believes and teaches that Yahweh "neither desired nor delighted in sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings."

Jesus defines true faith as doing God's will, carrying out God's commands in our everyday lives. Jesus' faith is far more expansive than the secure practice of engaging in specific sacrificial rituals. In carrying out God's will, we'll always discover a God who is expecting something of us today that we didn't even notice yesterday. This kind of faith constantly has us aiming at a moving target, being vulnerable at the same time we're becoming strong.

God's word

Luke nuances this concept just enough to create a unique theology (Lk 1: 39-45). He believes his community certainly hears God's word, but they have yet to make that work a life-giving part of their lives. So Luke first defines true faith as both hearing God's word and carrying it out, then designates Mary as the stellar example of this kind of faith. Throughout his Gospel, he brings up the twin characteristics of hearing and carrying out the word, and applies them to her.

In the Gospel, Elizabeth is given the honor of pointing out this dimension of Mary's faith. "Blessed are you," she proclaims, "who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."

Mary is "blessed among women" only because she actually carries through on God's word. It isn't a word she just reads or hears; it's a living entity, woven into the fabric of her daily life.

Following the theology of our three authors, we'd best reflect on how we're approaching Christmas. If it's just an occasion for nice, schmaltzy feelings, it's not worth celebrating. But if commemorating Jesus' birth inspires us to carry out God's word on a different level than we've had the courage to carry it out before, perhaps we're finally beginning to achieve true faith.

(12-21-00)