“… They said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent’.” (Jn 6:28-29)
The very first work that man renders to God is faith. In one sense, this statement settles the debate over whether “faith alone” or “faith and good works” is the way to salvation, since faith is to be considered man’s first good work in the pursuit of his salvation (Phil 2:12).
However, any discussion about faith and/or good works (charity) is meaningless without reference to grace. There would be no faith without grace. Thus, in truth, the first “work of God” spoken of in today’s gospel reading is not one that we perform, but one that God performs in us with his gift of grace. This grace generates in each of us a free choice: to believe or not to believe. In believing in Jesus – “the one [God] sent” – we perform our first good work from which all other good works arise. We call this primary work – the act of faith.
Sadly, when Jesus told the crowd to believe in him, they asked him for a sign. That is, they asked him for proof. They asked Jesus specifically “What can you do?” (Jn 6:30). This was the same thing Herod asked of Jesus before sending him back to Pilate for judgment (Lk 23:8-11). This is because the yearning of proof tends toward judgment. However, the yearning of grace tends toward belief.
To express this yearning on this 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we place on our bulletin cover a work by the Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, named Allegory on Faith (1672). In this busy Baroque scene, the woman dressed in blue, white, and gold is Faith. She places her right hand over her heart to show that faith is belief that trusts in another. She wears pearls to indicate that faith, as with hope and love, is a pure elemental virtue. She sets her right foot on a globe signifying that faith steps upon the world and conquers it spiritually. Faith then rests her left arm on a table. However, that his table is covered with cloth matching the color of Faith’s dress, and that on the table are stole, chalice, crucifix, and book (probably a Roman missal), it appears that what Faith leans upon is in fact an altar. Lastly, that the table rests upon a platform of steps also points to the table being an altar. Interestingly, this artwork has also been called Allegory of the Catholic Faith, since so much of the Catholic faith rests upon the altar and the Eucharistic sacrifice.
Other points of interest in this painting are the translucent globe representing the eternity of the divine and the crucifixion scene behind Lady Faith which directly relates to two other items on the checkered floor: the apple and the snake. The crucifix towers over the apple which represents original sin, while the passion and death of Jesus squashes the snake, shown crushed by the corner stone (Mt 21:42).
Vermeer unveils his entire scene of Faith by the pulling back of a curtain. In a similar way, our life of faith is revealed by the drawing light of grace.
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services