She stood behind Him at His feet weeping And began to wet His feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed then with ointment
Your faith has saved you, go in peace. Luke 7:38, 50
There is a sense in which faith means holding words to be true, as when we profess our faith in the Creed. And another sense in which faith means believing God’s will toward us is good, that He will do what He has promised; Christ will save us by making us right with the Father. In this sense faith is particularly personal, for it is about faith in someone, and about this one supremely important thing: the good of our soul and the meaning the future holds for us. There are no near analogies to “faith in Christ,” to that believing that gives eternal life. Divine faith is not without evidence, He gives us signs of many kinds, intellectual and historical, so that we may believe, but the evidence always leads the heart beyond itself; there is more in the perfection of faith than the evidence offered in the beginning.
We can know that God wants the words and signs he offers to be believed. He asked us to believe Him in the garden and we chose the counsel of the serpent. Abraham is our father in faith because, standing under a wilderness sky, a nomad without a city, he believed that God would make him Father of a nation as numerous as the stars and the sands of the desert. Living amid the disorder of a fallen world that everywhere obscures life with the ensign of death, we are called to believe goodness and beauty and order and love will prevail. It is in the act of believing God that we are saved because faith in Christ is not faith that the bank will remain solvent, not even faith that our friends will be steadfast, it is faith that in this Person our lives will find their right fruition, that He who makes promises will fulfill them, that God will do good and only good for us. This faith reorders the world we inhabit.
Paul is quick to remind Christians that we are justified, that is made righteous, made right with God, by faith, by believing God’s account of things, not our own (Galatians 2:16–17). His account is that He made the world and that He will judge it, that He loves us with an everlasting love, that He demands of us reality, that is, that He requires that we know ourselves as guilty sinners and requires that we believe that He forgives us when we confess. “If we say we have not sinned we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins. If we say that we have not sinned we make Him a liar,” for He knows us (I John 1:8–10). In the second reading from Galatians Saint Paul tells us not to be so foolish as to rely on our fulfilling the law, which were it possible would be a kind of idolatry, but to believe God, and in believing be made right not because our sins have been dismissed at the bar of divine justice but because the Son of the Father suffered for them. And this is the happiness of the elect that causes creation to sing. It expresses itself in enthusiasm, action that arises from deep in the heart.
The story of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with precious perfume and dries them with her hair has complex themes. It is perhaps retold in John where Jesus allows the extravagance of love and the one who prudently condemns the woman’s enthusiasm on utilitarian grounds—the money should be given to the poor—is Judas the thief (John 12:3–8). Here in Luke the woman, like the repentant David in the first reading, comes weeping, full of self-knowledge: “I have sinned against the Lord” (II Samuel 12:13).
Belief, the first of the God-given virtues, cannot long exist without love. The woman’s dramatic actions were the body of her deep faith, so that Jesus says that it is because of her great love that she is forgiven. This woman has been granted that deep insight born of faith and love that, seeing oneself in the light of God’s justice and love is called repentance, or turning around. She had sinned much, but she was no worse than the elders who on another day stood in the circle around another woman (John 8:3–8). But there is this: her heart is open to who she is, to who Jesus is, to love, and hence to great faith. The person who knows that in his or her own life there are many sins to be forgiven is everyman redeemed. To the degree that this self-knowledge is settled in our hearts, we will love much. As one goes through the world it is not easy to remember that among the differences we will encounter the greatest is not disparity of wealth or wisdom but the difference between those who know themselves as forgiven sinners and those who do not. This is a difference that surveys and sciences cannot quantify, but which is experienced day by day. Not always but often the forgiven forgive.
In the Gospel taken from Luke Peter is depicted not as a sinner, but as one of us who stands aside from the drama of faith made love, for human prudence and human pride always stand aside from enthusiasm, from dramatic actions such as the woman displayed, partly because they have a quality of intimacy, partly because they display the soul with its defenses laid aside, and partly because we do not share them. Jesus warned against the public display of piety; when you pray do not stand on the street corners but go into your closet (Matthew 6:5–6). God, says Saint Paul, is a God of peace, which is the order of tranquility. But the love of order does not answer to the actions of one on fire with the Holy Spirit. David, the man after God’s own heart made a spectacle of himself by dancing before the ark to the embarrassment of his queen. The great prophets were famous for illustrating God’s coming judgement through their own dramatic behavior. It is part of Peter’s character that he will promise fidelity he cannot yet deliver and draw his sword against the high priest’s servant.
While the Church has over the centuries distanced itself from the public excesses to which prophesy was sometimes liable in the first two centuries, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to Pope Victor’s fear of ecstatic prophecy in Asia at the turn of the second century, it has never ceased promoting what might be called an enthusiasm of the heart that is expressed in a world-disturbing rhetoric that seems set against the reasonableness of the world. The violent bear it away. Leave father and mother. Put out the offensive eye. Do not divorce. If you love mother and father more than me you are not worthy of the Kingdom. Leave all your possessions and follow me.
What lies beyond the happiness of forgiveness is a life lived. King David of the first reading will have had difficulties, among them the fact that the past is not done away by magic. David’s guilt had been forgiven. But it is unlikely that Nathan’s challenge made in the throne room when the prophet called the king unjust would remain secret. The child died. What lay ahead was the rebellion of his sons, military defeat. God forgave David’s sin, but the glory of his reign was over. And what of the woman? She had broken with her past, so what would be her future.
The light of love realized shines down the difficult path that begins when we are forgiven, and is given us for the road ahead. We do not know the rest of the woman’s story, but the day when Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace,” could never be forgotten or its promise betrayed. There was great joy, great enthusiasm, at Pentecost, given for the days of beatings and imprisonment that lay ahead. And so it is with our lives; nothing so dramatic but times to remember the joy of forgiveness.