She has contributed all she had, all she had to live on. (Mark 12:44)
If you are like me, Christ’s words here make you think of the first section of Pope-Emeritus Benedict’s encyclical on Christian hope. The poor woman at the Temple treasury gave all her “substance,” her whole livelihood, her material means.
In the first reading at Holy Mass this Sunday, we hear about the widow who had been reduced to poverty by a long drought. As she explained to the prophet Elijah, she was a woman of very little substance.
When the prophet asked for food, she said, “How can I provide for you, and my son, and myself, when all I have is a handful of flour, and no hope of getting any more?”
But Elijah said: Faith is the substance of things hoped for. Faith is a “substance.”
Actually, Elijah did not say that exactly. He said, Just give me something to eat. I am a hungry prophet. Give me a cake. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Have some faith, woman. God makes the sun shine and the rain fall.
Who wrote, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for?’ Right. St. Paul. The same apostle who also wrote: “Christ will appear a second time to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him.”
In his encyclical, Pope Benedict posed the question: On what, exactly, does man live? What is the substance of human life?
Before we shout Faith! Love! Jesus! let’s pause. Hungry Elijah asked for bread before he got into matters of piety. As the Fathers of Vatican II put it:
A man can scarcely [attain a spiritual life] unless his living conditions allow him to be conscious of his dignity and to rise to his destiny…Human freedom is often crippled when a man encounters extreme poverty. (Gaudium et Spes 31)
So Elijah asked for food. At that point, he could not simply live on the words coming forth from the mouth of God. But the woman said: I don’t have any bread, man. No bread, as in money. And no bread, as in bread.
Elijah said: Woman, I feel you. I know you’ve got problems. So do I. But give me something to eat. I have been fasting for days, months, years. I have walked all over kingdom come–east, west, north, south. Just trying to serve the hardnosed God of Israel. He is enormously demanding.
Why do think we have this endless drought in the first place? Because the king and the people of our nation have abandoned the faith. Listen, just give me some bread. Then we’ll talk.
Elijah did not start with a sermon; he demanded a cake. The woman was also practical and no-nonsense. But did she respond to Elijah’s purely practical request with pure pragmatism of her own?
Did she say, “Look, Israelite. I don’t know what kind of math you Jews practice, but here in Phoenicia 1 + 1 does not = 3. I do not have three cakes worth of substance in my flour jar?”
No, she did not say that. She did not refuse him. His request made no sense; it didn’t add up. But she faithfully obeyed anyway. Her faith became the substance of the cakes she proceeded to make. She had enough faith to bake cakes for a year.
Do miracles happen? Or can science explain everything? Is our substance made merely of molecules? Or do we need another science, other than “science,” to explain what we are really made of? As in: the science of the saints.
What if the woman had spiritualized everything and said to Elijah, “I wish you peace, my brother! In the name of the Lord! Go your way. Stay warm and well fed!” What if she never handed over the cake? Would her praises be sung in the Scriptures then? Hardly.
On the other hand, down-to-earth as she was, her life had more substance that just the flour in the jar. Her faith reached out to something real, to a supernatural substance. She believed in God. She wanted, above all, to obey God. And she hoped in His providence.
God took care of her, and her son, and Elijah, bodily and spiritually.
What’s the greatest miracle? I think it is two-fold. One: The greatest miracle is that anything even exists at all—and that things, as they exist, do fundamentally make sense.
Why does 1 + 1 even = 2? Because God makes sense, and makes everything He has made make sense. That is the most awesome of all miracles, and that’s why we can even have math, or science, or modern medicine, or economics.
But ultimately God makes more sense than we ourselves can grasp right now. After all, He has a fundamental divine reason for making the universe. The second part of the great miracle is that God has taught us through Christ His fundamental reason—the reason why He has made everything that He has made. He made it all for us: for our salvation, for our perfect fulfillment. His whole plan has one goal: that we would live.