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​More than just stars

· ​At the General Audience the Pope speaks of Abram's hope ·

“Complaining to the Lord is a way of praying”. Pope Francis expressed this in his reflection at the General Audience in the Paul VI Hall on Wednesday, 28 December, as he continued the series of catecheses on the theme of Christian hope. He focused in particular on the experience of Abram, whom, the Pontiff explained, God leads away “from his narrow vision” so as to see the stars — in other words, enabling Abram “to see with the eyes of faith”. The following is a translation of the catechesis which the Holy Father delivered in Italian.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Good morning!

In the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul reminds us of the great figure of Abraham, to indicate to us the way of faith and hope. The Apostle writes of him: “he believed, steadfast in hope against all hope, that he should become the father of many nations” (cf. Rom 4:18); “Steadfast in hope against all hope”. This is a powerful concept: even when there is no hope, I hope. This is how our father Abraham was. Saint Paul is referring to the faith with which Abram believed in the Word of God who promises him a son. It truly was an act of entrustment, hoping “against all hope”, so unlikely was what the Lord was announcing, because he was elderly — he was nearly 100 years old — and his wife was barren. She could not conceive! But God had said so, and [Abram] believed. There was no human hope because he was elderly and his wife barren: and he believed.

Trusting in this promise, Abram sets out on a journey, is ready to leave his land and become a sojourner, hoping in this “impossible” son that God was to give him although Sara’s womb was by then as lifeless. Abram believes, his faith opens to a hope that appears unreasonable; it is the ability to go beyond human reasoning, wisdom and worldly prudence, beyond what is normally considered common sense, to believe in the impossible. Hope opens new horizons, makes one capable of dreaming of what is not even imaginable. Hope enables one to enter the darkness of an uncertain future in order to walk in the light. The virtue of hope is beautiful; it gives us much strength to walk in life.

But it is a difficult journey. The moment arrives, even for Abram, of the crisis of discouragement. He entrusted himself, left his house, his land, his friends ... everything. He left; he arrived in the country that God had indicated to him; time had passed. At that time to make such a journey was not like today, with air travel — which happens in a few hours. It took months, years! Time passed, but the son did not arrive, Sara’s womb remained closed in its barrenness.

Abram, I do not say that he lost patience, but he complains to the Lord. This too we learn from our father Abraham: complaining to the Lord is a way of praying. At times when I hear confession, people say: “I complained to the Lord ...”, and I respond: “No, complain! He is the father!”. This is a way of praying: complaining to the Lord, this is good. Abram complains to the Lord, saying: “‘O Lord God, ... I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus’”. (Eliezer was the one who managed everything). “And Abram said, ‘Behold, thou hast given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir’. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir’. And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if your are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And [Abram] believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:2-6).

The scene takes place at night; it is dark outside, but also in Abram’s heart there is the darkness of delusion, of discouragement, of the difficulty of continuing to hope in something impossible. At this point the patriarch is too advanced in years. It seems there is no longer time to expect a son, and a slave will take over, inheriting everything.

Abram is addressing the Lord, but even though God is present there and speaks with him, it is as if God has distanced himself, as if He had not kept his word. Abram feels alone; he is old and weary; death is approaching. How can he continue to believe?

Yet, his lamenting is already a form of faith, it is a prayer. Despite everything, Abram continues to believe in God and to hope that something might still happen. Otherwise, why challenge the Lord, grumble to him, remind him of his promises? Faith is not only silence which accepts everything without responding, hope is not an assurance that keeps you safe from doubt and uncertainty. But so often, hope is darkness; but hope is there ... which leads you forward. Faith is also struggling with God, showing our bitterness, without “pious” pretences. “I was angry with God and I told him this, this, this...”. But he is father, he understands you: go in peace! It is important to have this courage! This is hope. Hope is also not being afraid to see reality for what it is and to accept its contradictions.

Thus, in faith, Abram asks God to help him continue to hope. It is curious: he does not ask for a son. He asks: “Help me continue to hope”, the prayer to have hope. The Lord’s response is to repeat his unlikely promise: the heir will not be a slave, but his son, born of Abram, begotten of him. Nothing has changed, on God’s side. He continues to emphasize what he has already said, and does not offer pretexts to Abram, so as to reassure him. His one assurance is trusting in the Word of the Lord and continuing to hope.

That sign that God gives to Abram is a request to continue to believe and hope: “Look toward the heaven, and number the stars.... So shall your descendants be”. (Gen 15:5). It is again a promise, it is again something to await in the future. God brings Abram out of the tent, in reality from his narrow vision, and shows him the stars. To believe, it is necessary to be able to see with the eyes of faith; they are only stars, which everyone can see, but for Abram they must be the sign of God’s faithfulness.

This is faith; this is the journey of hope that each one of us must take. If the only possibility that remains to us is that of looking toward the stars, then it is time to trust in God. There is nothing more beautiful. Hope does not disappoint. Thank you.

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