The Christian story began amidst great turmoil. The passion, suffering, and crucifixion of Jesus, the continuing doubts in spite of the resurrection, the long and brutal persecution, and the dispersal of believers across the Roman Empire was the context of the birth of the Church. Yet there was a paradox that defined the early church. Amidst the raging uncertainty, unceasing social threats, and absolute lack of freedom, faith thrived, and the people of God grew in numbers! The faith of the early Christians was undefeatable, their hope was enduring, and their love became the defining movement of human history.
Today, we are a people who are in the throes of a different kind of turmoil – a debilitating pandemic. Since December 2019, more than 54 million people have been infected by the coronavirus and more than 1.3 million people have died. Here in our own nation, more than 11 million people have been infected from COVID-19 and it has claimed more than 246,000 lives. Each day we get news of someone else within our circle of family and friends who have been infected or faces the grave danger of death. To make things worse, our nation has been affected by widespread racial and political upheavals. These upheavals have relegated other global and national tragedies to the sidelines – especially rising sea levels, and unprecedented number of storms and wildfires. While many ignore the warnings, climate change is causing havoc, destroying the very fragile biodiversity, and claiming thousands of lives.
Before I go further, here I must acknowledge the grief and the pain of the many people who have a lost a loved one to the pandemic. This inconsolable pain is real and please know that I grieve with you in solidarity. I must also acknowledge the anxiety and pain of those at high risk, the elderly, those who have lost employment, are underemployed, and those battling mental illnesses. I also express my solidarity with those who have been victims of racial and social injustices, and those who have lost their lives, their homes, or their livelihood to the storms and wildfires. Words fail to express my sorrow.
It is in these uncertain and difficult times that as a people of faith we pause to reflect, to pray, and to find hope. Like the early Christians, while we are realistic about our challenges, we do not let these challenges define us. No! We will only be defined by our faith. We will only be grounded in hope. And in spite of it all, we will only walk in love.
“There are three things that remain,” St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor 13:13). Faith, hope, and love – these virtues defined the early Christians and now they must define us. Not the pandemic, not our divisions, not the inequalities, not our fears, nor the uncertainties. I believe that during this time it is faith, hope, and love that will guide us beyond the pandemic and other raging challenges.
In the Catholic tradition, faith, hope, and love, are known as the three theological virtues. We owe this to the great saint and theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas called faith, hope, and love theological virtues because these virtues come from God and they teach us to live for God. Pardon me, then, if Aquinas finds much reference in this reflection.
If faith, hope, and love are the antidotes to our present malaise, where should we begin?Paul would say, “The greatest of these is love!” (1 Cor 13:13). Aquinas reflects on the theological virtues in the order of precedence he finds them in 1 Corinthians – faith, hope, and love. Thus, he begins with faith.
Even before the pandemic struck, in the Parish Pastoral Council discussions and in the discussion among the parish staff and the adult faith formation groups, hope had emerged as a favorite theme for the coming year. At that time, it was the upcoming election that was uppermost in our minds. And then COVID struck. Hope naturally emerged as a more urgent theme. Whereas I whole heartedly agree that more than any other virtue people need to experience hope, hope is not found in nothingness. Hope must be grounded in something. Our hope is grounded in our faith and our love is the living-out of our faith.For these reasons, like Aquinas, I would like to begin with faith.
Let me illustrate the point I am trying to make. Recently, an elderly couple in the parish became the victims of the coronavirus. While the eighty-one-year-old husband lay intubated in an intensive care unit struggling for his life, his wife was compelled to stay confined at home. Unable to be with her helpless husband, she was distraught. Moreover, her only son too was infected with COVID-19 and was prevented from caring for her or his father. She called pleading for prayers. We spoke numerous times during those days. “I just want my husband back, father!” she said to me on one occasion. Through it all, she never gave up her faith in God and faith the medical community. Her faith gave her hope. I am glad to let you know that her hope was realized. The second story is more personal. Due to the pandemic, I had to cancel my visit home to be with my mother. My mother and I have been talking over the phone each morning and evening. She has caregivers to care for her, but she finds herself isolated from her children, her relatives, and friends. My mother and I have a common hope - that we can see each other in January. So even though the future is uncertain, I have already booked my flight. The reason? Faith in God’s providence. My mother constantly reminds me to have faith. Our hope is grounded in faith.
Often when we talk about religious faith, we think about faith in God. For Aquinas, even though God is the object of faith, he begins elsewhere. According to him, first of all faith is a matter of being willing to ask the existential questions. For example, “Why do we exist?” and “What is the meaning of our existence?” Our existential questions these days might be different. “Why do we have to endure suffering?” “Where is God is now?” Many people have suggested that the pandemic is God’s punishment. Our existential question might be, “Who is God, now?” “Why does God allow such suffering?” “What is the meaning of life when we all suffer together?”
Existential questions are universal. Each religious tradition gives answers to the same existential questions. As Christians we look for answers within the Judeo-Christian tradition. After all, we believe that it was the existential questions such as, “Where did we come from?” and “If God is good and God created a good world, where did evil come from?” that led to the answers that we now have in the sacred scriptures.
Aquinas looked back into the rich tradition of Scripture, the early Church Fathers, and later saints, and saw a blueprint for reality: a good God who created and good world for human beings to be happy but also tainted by sin and finally, redeemed by Jesus Christ. As Aquinas considered all these things and looked around at his own world, he believed that what the Christian tradition teaches is true. This, for him, was the ground of his faith.
Today, it is our turn to come to a renewed moment of faith. The Christian answer to the existential questions is not a book. Our answer is not even merely the spoken word of God. Our answer is the “Word made Flesh.” In other words, God didn’t merely give us an answer to our existential questions. God became our answer. Jesus is the answer to our existential questions. Jesus took flesh, became human, lived and died among us, and in this way revealed the true meaning of human life. He did this by reminding us of our origin and our destiny. We are not accidental beings living meaninglessly from the day we are born until the day we die with nowhere to go. We are not aimless human beings being tossed about by the ravages of life. Rather, just like Jesus, we believe that we all come from God and we are all journeying together toward God. And no matter what life deals us, like Jesus, not only do we make meaning out of it, but we also find salvation. The one who leads the way is Jesus.
At a very critical moment in his own life, Jesus declared himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn 14:6). This means that humanity is invited to look to Jesus as the answer to our existential questions. By preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, by revealing God’s personal and unconditional love for all, by revealing God’s involvement in human history, by inviting humanity to rediscover our identity as God’s children, by showing us the kindness, fidelity, and mercy of God in person, by teaching us the power of powerlessness, by showing us the fullness that comes from of self-emptying sacrifice, by changing the meaning of suffering and making it a means of salvation, by showing us how to overcome the power of sin and evil, by teaching us to love God and love our neighbor, by teaching us to forgive and love even our enemies, by inviting us to be meek, merciful and peacemakers, by inviting us to place our lives unconditionally in God’s hands (Jesus did this by placing his life in God’s hand at the crucifixion), by helping us believe that even the darkest darkness cannot overcome the light, and finally, by his resurrection opening the way to eternity – Jesus showed himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Jesus came from God, taught us the meaning of life, and returned back to God, and then sent us the Holy Spirit to help us live HIS life. Today, as we live his life, we are sustained by the Eucharist and all the Sacraments.
The early church learnt well the answers that Jesus’ life offered to the existential questions. They put their faith in Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one understood this better than St. Paul. Paul wrote about the enduring value of faith, hope, and love, to impress upon the church, the value of living meaningful lives, especially in turbulent times. Through the extremely challenging two-and-a-quarter centuries the early Church lived in total faith in Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Since then, numerous heroes of faith – Augustine, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa and many others have given witness to this life of radical faith.
As we live our lives during these challenging times, the life of Jesus, his faith in God, the lessons he taught us, along with the faith of the early Christians, and the example of the later saints is the ground of our own faith. Just as Aquinas looked back as the Christian tradition and saw that what it proposed as true, today, for us, faith means that we believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Faith means that we surrender to his vision of life. Faith means that we unite our origin and our destiny with that of Jesus. Faith means that we endure suffering in the same way Jesus did. Faith means that we trust that if we live like Jesus did and love like Jesus loved, our life will bear the same fruit that his life did. Our faith journey began in baptism. Today, we reaffirm our faith and recommit ourselves to living it amidst the challenges of our own times.
Faith precedes hope because faith answers our ultimate questions. Hope follows faith.
According to Aquinas, hope means believing that what we believe in with faith, will actually come to pass. Hope is the absolute conviction that what we believe will be accomplished. As Aquinas says, “hope is the habit of embracing a higher standard of behavior because we act out what we believe. We also believe that if we do, we will in fact turn into better, happier versions of ourselves,” even if we know that this path is not easy, and that we will never be perfect.
But hope does not exist in a vacuum. Hope is found in human hearts. In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis says: “Hope speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of our circumstances and historical conditioning. Hope speaks to us of a thirst, an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfillment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fill our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness and beauty, justice and love. (Fratelli Tutti, 55).
Thus far we have laid out the faith-answers to our existential questions. We have also pointed out the space where hope is located – the human heart. So, what is it that we hope? Our hope lies in the enduring value of the life and message of Jesus Christ. Our hope lies in believing that even though much brokenness surrounds us, the human spirit, touched by the love of Christ, will ultimately act for the good of all humanity. Our hope is that the human race will unite one more time to overcome the challenges that confront us. Our hope that this pandemic – even though it has claimed millions of lives across the globe and caused irreparable damage to persons, to human relationships, to people’s livelihood, especially the poor – will be overcome and we will emerge stronger from this tragedy. Our hope that there will be a peaceful resolution to the political, social, and racial injustices.
And we have reason for hope. Our hope is grounded in our faith that Christ has overcome every injustice, every suffering, every pain, and every evil. The Christian story tells us that suffering, despair, darkness and death are never the last word; that love always wins; and that the stone that covered even the darkest tomb was removed. Yes! Our hope is not groundless. It is grounded in the life of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus by his faith in God, overcame suffering, death, and destruction and brought love, light, and life to humanity, so can we. This we believe! This we hope.
Love or Caritas
As I said earlier, whereas our hope is grounded in our faith, love is the living-out of our faith.
Aquinas says, “Charity is friendship first with God and secondly with all who belong to God including ourselves. So we love ourselves with charity, inasmuch as we too are God's." (2a2ae, 25, 4). Love or charity, for Aquinas, is the habit of choosing to be vulnerable enough to be drawn to “the good,” to love it, and to act accordingly.
Aquinas speaks of the love of charity as being like the love of friendship. When we love our friends, we open ourselves to enjoying them for their own sake and we wish good things for them. This is exactly the attitude he thinks we should have towards creation, all of its creatures, and God. Aquinas also says that "the ultimate goal of man is to enjoy God, and to this love directs him" (2a2ae, 23, 7). It is in this sense, that love is the living-out of our faith.
Love is the living-out of our faith. This means that impelled by God’s infinite love for us, spurred by our faith in God, and driven by hope, we get into the habit of loving infinitely – God, creation, ourselves, our neighbors, and even our enemies. As Aquinas explains, when we experience eternal bliss in heaven, we will no longer need faith or hope. But we will always have love.” Love is forever. In Paul’s words, “the greatest of these is love!”
What is love? To define love, I would like to adopt Aquinas method of the via negativa and via positiva. First, let us define love by giving example of what it is not, the via negativa. In the midst of a pandemic, to refuse to wear a mask and to make the mask a political statement; to condone racial injustices and even support it; to refuse to adopt a consistent life ethic (meaning that we protect life from conception to natural end); to violently separate immigrant children from their families; to treat God’s creation as a tool for profit and to refuse to care for it; to disregard the poor and the vulnerable in making national and global economic policies; to refuse to assign every human person their God-given dignity; to refuse to act for the common good – these are some examples of what love is NOT. And these are not examples of love, because as Aquinas says, the theological virtues come from God and help us to live for God. The above examples are steeped in selfishness. They are contrary to the model God places before us through Jesus Christ.
Let me now move to the via positiva or, describing what love IS. As Jesus said, first and foremost, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mk12:30). Then Jesus quickly added, “The second is like it, namely this, “You shalt love your neighbor as yourself. There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:31).
When the pandemic led to the very first shut down in March, I was astounded by parishioners, whose instinctive faith-response was, how can I help those in need. They chose to love neighbor as an expression of their love for God. It led to a movement – more and more people stepping up to take care of the undocumented immigrants, the poor, the vulnerable, and the elderly. Some made donations, some helped distributing food, other grocery shopped for the elderly, yet others offered child-care as the parents went to work. This is love. We also saw health care workers nationally, locally, and from within our parish step up and made immense sacrifices to save lives. They worked long hours without adequate personal protection and medical equipment. Many of them died from the very virus from which they were trying to save others. This is love. Many grocery workers, cleaners and disinfectors risked their own health for the smooth functioning of society. This is love. Many teachers did their best to adopt newer methods to impart education to their students. This is love.
Besides the pandemic, today, as a faith community, a community of disciples, as followers of Jesus, other issues are demanding a love response from us. Our faith demands this from us. When we confront racial inequalities and injustices, we must act in love and unequivocally to make sure that no human person is stripped of his or her human dignity. Our faith demands this from us. When political and social upheavals erupt, in love we must categorically stand for truth, justice, and peace. Our faith demands this from us. When the vulnerable – whether in the womb, or at our borders, or immigrant children and families separated from each other, or the hungry and homeless, or those suffering mental illnesses, or the poor struggling for a single meal, or those with different sexual orientations – are excluded from mainstream society and relegated to the peripheries, like Jesus, we must act in love and offer hope. Our faith demands this from us. When we see God beautiful creation mercilessly raped to satisfy our endless consumerism, in love we must come to her aid. Our faith demands this from us.
At Immaculate Conception Parish, our love is taking a very concrete shape in our decision to offer full-fledged parish ministries to our Spanish speaking brothers and sisters. At this time in the history of our nation, our church, and our parish, I believe that this historic will bear witness to the one faith, hope, and one community, that God invites us to live. At a time when division, strife, racism, xenophobia, and mistrust are common, our community can bear witness to the reality that love conquers all things; that where there is love, fear is banished. Our faith demands this from us.
We have reflected on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love – the theological virtues that come from God and help us to live for God. I invite each parishioner and everyone hearing this reflection today, to intentionally and conscientiously surrender ourselves to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Gospel of faith, hope, and love incarnated entrusted to us by Jesus. Immaculate Conception Parish envisions herself as a “Community of Disciples.” By this we mean that we strive to “think like Jesus, talk like Jesus, and Act like Jesus.” There is no better way to live up to our calling than to be a people of faith, hope, and love – faith in God, hope in God’s promises, and love for God and solidarity with every brother and sister.