By Fr. Bud Grant
Environmentalists are not optimists. Multiple crises of Creation are compounded by the politicization of the issues, especially now. We must turn elsewhere for faith, hope and love.
These “theological virtues” are derived from St. Paul: “so faith, hope and love remain, these three: but the greatest of these is love (I Cor. 13:13). Along with what St. Ambrose calls the “cardinal” virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice/benevolence) these form the bedrock of virtues ethics. Of course, if the meaning of these terms was obvious I’d be out of a job, so let me add layers. I propose, in the profundity of Lent, that we examine them through the lens of the “seven last sayings” of Christ in his Passion. In this context, their significance is so startling that, as the indomitable Inigo Montoya says: “You keep using that word! I do not think it means what you think it means! (The Princess Bride, 1987).
Faith comes first (the order, I think, is no accident, but architectonic). In John’s Gospel the Greek πίστίς (pistis) almost always means “belief.” Paul will use it that way, too, but usually he means “faith.” The distinct English terms expose a real difference: belief is hanging on; faith is letting go. Thus, the first step in Christian ethics is to let go of what we believe to be true … about ourselves, the world around us and, most importantly, about God. Faith is a kind of death. No greater expression of faith was ever spoken than in the most chilling of the “seven last sayings” of Christ: “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mt. 27:46). Stripped, beaten, shamed and mocked, dying, and now utterly alone. Not blasphemy, this. Faith is the key to interpret his forlorn cry. Christ was dying to everything. As he, so we.
Hope (Gk. ελπίς from the verb “to anticipate”) is the second virtue. Seldom found elsewhere than in St. Paul, “hope” does not mean to attain that which we desire or to avoid that which we dread. Such cannot be the hope of the Crucified One. Rather, Christian hope is lunging toward the God who will carry us through (not around) the worst. It is in this sense that we understand another of the “seven last sayings” of Christ: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). Having surrendered in faith, he trusts, he hopes, he anticipates that he will fall into the very arms of God. Death, though brutally, vulgarly, grotesquely real, does not prevail. Having fallen, he is caught. As he, so we.
Love — αγάπη (agape) — this “greatest” of virtues is even more weighted with jumbled valences than the other two. Leave it to Thomas Aquinas to organize the mess. He speaks of three stages of ultimate love: incipient agape is choosing to not take advantage of others for one’s own benefit; proficient agape is choosing to put one’s self at the service of others. Perfect love is dying for the sake of the others who — and this bit is crucial — don’t deserve the sacrifice. And Christ’s words (again, from the “seven last sayings”) drive home this point: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk.23:34).
Dying in the hope of resurrection, loving to the point of death … this spiraling sequence moves the Christian ever deeper into the mystery of Christ while determining our understanding of ourselves and God’s creation, Mother Earth. This is summed up in yet another of the seven last sayings: “Woman, behold your son, then he said to his beloved disciple, behold your mother” (Jn. 19:26-27). As he, so we.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)