Faith, Hope, and Love
Faith, hope and love and abide, and the greatest of these is love. These words of St. Paul from today’s second lesson are among the best known and best loved in all of Holy Scripture. In the Catholic Church we name these the three theological virtues. That is, they are capacities given to us by God to enable us to enter into a deeper relationship with him and thereby into a more Christian relationship with others.
In today’s bulletin letter I warn about the distortions of the idea of love in our culture. These days love is often confused with romance and emotion. For most of our contemporaries and in popular culture love is a feeling not a virtue. So we must strive to understand what Paul means by love. And to do that we must be clear about faith and hope. Faith and hope, like love properly understood, are theological virtues, not vague character traits.
Faith is not tenacity or perseverance as many imagine when they say someone has great faith. What they often mean is that the person has the stubbornness to hang in there against great odds. That might by a commendable thing but it is not faith.
Nor is faith self-confidence. When the football announcer declares that the quarterback had faith that he could complete the ‘hail Mary’ pass, what he is actually describing is self-confidence. Faith is a different matter.
Faith is the knowledge of Christ, it is the embrace of the truth we learn from Scripture, tradition and the magisterium of the Church; it is not a personal preference. It is not a matter of believing whatever we might like to believe.
Faith is saying “I believe” in the Creed and striving throughout our lives to grasp more fully what we have confessed. It is seeing Jesus as he identifies himself today in the Gospel as the one in whom the Scriptures have been fulfilled.
And ultimately, faith is seeing God’s love in the cross of Jesus Christ, and thus the symbol of the cross is often as a sign for faith.
Then there is hope, and we need to be clear about one thing right away. Hope is not optimism. Optimism is a matter of optics of how a person sees things, not necessarily of how they actually are. Thus, famously, the optimist sees the glass as half-full and the pessimist sees it as half-empty. But either way the glass is actually half water and half air.
Hope is very different from optimism. Hope is clinging to Christ, joining our future to his, even when things look very bleak, even when the glass seems empty. It is important that we notice that in Paul’s treatment of faith, hope and love, the horizon of the future is continually present. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
Hope is the knowledge that God is with us from our mother’s womb as God assures Jeremiah when he calls him to his onerous mission of declaring unwelcome truth to the kings and princes, priests and people of Judah.
Like Jesus, Jeremiah will suffer much, but suffering and loss point forward to the Kingdom. Defeat and discouragement teach us endurance and hope and help us to understand that our life can reach its fulfillment only in the resurrection.
We might say that faith looks backwards and looks around and sees God’s steadfast love and fidelity and counts his blessings; hope looks forward and understands that God’s love and blessing is eternal. So hope is sometimes symbolized by an anchor, for the anchor holds the ship steady through the storms.
We need to get faith and hope right, and if we get faith and hope right, then the greatest virtue will be love because our love will then be the product of faith and hope put in the right place. When faith and hope are put in the wrong place, love will be distorted, and it is easy to see how commonly love is distorted.
Because love is so easily distorted the heart both is and is not an adequate symbol for it.
Too often these days the heart symbolizes merely the passing desires, whims and fancies we experience as we turn toward ‘whatever my little heart desires.’ Love often means just the orientation toward whatever makes us feel good at the moment. This is now what St. Paul is talking about.
Biblical love is willing the good of the other as summarize by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day was celebrated this past week. Love is not just sexual attraction, to which pop culture often reduces it.
And there are many other kinds of love: love of country, party, ideas, nature, art, music, and so on. And all of these can be good, but all can become idolatrous and obsessive. And as St. Paul says to Timothy elsewhere – and Pope Francis likes to turn the knife on this one – “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
Love can go wrong fast. But love that starts from faith in Jesus and that embraces his cross, love that puts its hope in the future he has prepared for us – such love is great and can put all human loves and desires into proper perspective, making them serve the good rather than evil.
“Love means to be willing to give until it hurts,” said Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, soon to be canonized. Love is Christ on the cross; it is Christ washing the feet of his disciples.
It is the parent at the bedside, the Christian laboring long and hard to assist the poor and the sick, the wife standing by the husband developing dementia. It is Christians seeking reconciliation after a conflict. It is parents welcoming an unanticipated child, and, yes, love can be the carefully chosen Valentine’s Day gesture. For even romantic love, which can work so much mischief and evil, can by faith, hope, and self-giving love achieve the beauty which God intends. Properly understood, the symbol of the heart is correct.
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, says St. Paul in his great Letter to the Romans. After twelve chapters plumbing the meaning of the Gospel, he turns to advising the Romans on how to live with those words. That’s what Jesus did. With faith in his Father’s unyielding love, with hope that the Father could redeem him from the grave, with the love for us that will not end, he gave us reason for authentic faith, hope and love.