“Increase our faith,” the apostles say to Jesus. He replies: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”
At another time, a man whose son was possessed by demons came to Jesus with his son seeking a cure. The demons would throw the son into convulsions and he would thrash about the ground. On approaching Jesus the father told him that he had asked the disciples to help but they could not to which Jesus replied: “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.” The boy is brought to Jesus and immediately he is thrown into convulsions foaming at the mouth. Jesus asks: “How long has this been happening?” “Since childhood,” comes the reply, “It has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus replies: “If you can! Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then the father says: “I do believe, help my unbelief!” At which Jesus orders the spirit to come out and it does (cf. Mark 9:17-25).
Another time you may recall the disciples were crossing the sea in a boat. It was night. A sudden storm emerged on the sea and began to rock the boat with large waves. The disciples were being tossed about yet Jesus remained asleep. The disciples woke Jesus and said: “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He said to them: “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” He rebukes the wind and sea then calm returns (cf. Matthew 8:23-26).
The three stories are only a sample of encounters from the Gospel where faith is both present and needed. In the passage from Sunday’s liturgy, where the apostles say to Jesus “Increase our faith,” they clearly already have faith. They have left everything to follow Jesus because they believe in him. Yet there is the need for more faith, which they clearly recognized. Jesus affirms this need in his response.
In the story of the possessed boy the father clearly has faith. This is first demonstrated by his going to the disciples of Jesus looking for help. Then when they cannot help him he goes to Jesus himself. His words also reflect his faith, “I do believe,” and the need for more faith: “Help my unbelief.”
The third story again acknowledges the faith of the disciples for they are with Jesus and “following” him. They are with Jesus who is their protection and strength yet are overcome with fear as the storm swells the sea. They have faith but need more. The three stories serve to remind us of the need for an ever-increasing faith.
St. Paul tells us that faith is a belief in what is unseen for “we walk by faith not by sight.” Faith allows us to walk in the darkness confident that we will be seen through to the light. Faith entails a great trust in the Lord. We surrender ourselves to him in like children placing their hand in the hand of a parent and allowing the parent to lead them as they walk.
In the Collect prayer for Sunday’s liturgy we acknowledge this trust and ask for an increase: “Almighty ever-living God, who in the abundance of your kindness surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you, pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.”
St. Paul, in the passage from the Second Letter to Timothy, uses the image of a fire to encourage an increase of faith. He writes: “Stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”
When he says “stir into flame,” we might think of the image of a fire pit which many people use these days. We know when the fire is burning down. The flames have gotten so small they almost disappear. The fire still burns, however. The wood is charred but it glows golden. Blowing a little bit of air on the wood is all it takes to get the flames stirred up. That’s a start but to really keep it burning more wood has to be added. Once added the fire is sustained and burns brightly; but this will only endure when air and fuel are added. So too it is with faith.
Today, we stoke the flame of faith as we actively listen to the Word of God. We open our hearts to the movement of the Spirit who provides air for the flame. We eat the Bread of Life which fuels our faith and causes it to grow. Our prayer today is the prayer of the apostles: “Increase our faith.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.