© 29 April 2020
Fragments of Theological Hope in CoVid
During this pandemic many, if not most of us, more or less willingly, have questioned our priorities and values, and indeed the very meaning of our lives and of our own selves. While many point to the goodness and generosity that have been manifested, we also experience our individual and collective powerlessness, the limitations of science and medicine. We see a range of human responses including heroism, extraordinary community spirit and activity, frustration and depression, and also aggression, selfishness, meanness and even brutality and barbarity. It is commonly noted that huge numbers of us have experience a shift in priorities towards the importance of family and friends, simple pleasures, quietness, stillness and an awareness of the human dimension beyond the material: the spiritual, the transcendent. Collectively and individually there seems to be evidence that we are going through stages, akin to but different from, the stages of grieving, with fear, bon esprit, incomprehension and confusion, generosity, mixing with anger, frustration, blame gaming – and surely there will be more to come. World and national leaders have responded to the situation in divers ways and they have been praised, questioned, criticised, hated. We all either experience lockdown, or because of essential and more or less dangerous jobs, the surreal world outside lockdown, while those who work with patients with Covid-19 on a daily basis frequently experience psychological trauma and fatigue to a degree that others can barely imagine. Each of these situations brings extraordinary challenges and perspectives which give an intensity to just about every question of life. No thinking person denies that any purported benefits of this situation occur against the daily horrors of ongoing catastrophic suffering for millions and for generations. In addition, in many countries there is a major dissonance between the respect and the provision which were directed to the elderly and the vulnerable before the pandemic with the vast medical provision, social upheaval and economic resources made available for the protections of these same demographics in the response to the pandemic. Moreover, these resources are being made available at the cost of economic and social crisis, even catastrophe, which will itself affect millions of others now and in the future, and disproportionately those who are themselves vulnerable for economic, social or health reasons. The existential narrative, as it stands, is incoherent and incomprehensible.
When we have the courage to do so, – and perhaps even when we do not, – we live with a huge, sometimes screamed, ‘Why?’ These contemporary instances of life’s perennial questions are ‘like a probe inserted into the depths of the reality of man and man’s existence in the world’.
Gaudium et Spes wrote: ‘We can justly consider that the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.’ We may therefore ask, as Christians we simply must ask, in what way our Christian faith can illuminate this particular encounter both with suffering and with the glimpses of human transcendence and heroism which have shone through in human society. Is the sum of our faith to say that we are in God’s hands and He works all to the good? (And let us remember, if we dare, that the current pandemic is but the tip of the iceberg of both global suffering and human compassion.) What does it mean to say that God works all for good, and how does our faith say that that could that possibly happen?
How could we hope in God now?
The source of hope and the answer to our questions, Gaudium et Spes continues, is ‘the mystery of redemption: the work of Jesus Christ that is continually being effected in the Church and, through the Church in mankind and the world.’ Remote, this may seem: yet it is what we must probe even as we our probed, for it is our faith and the key unlocking the way forward.
The revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love in Jesus Christ reveals man to man, and gives the ultimate answer to the question, ‘What is man?’ This answer cannot be separated from the problem of man’s vocation: man confirms his identity by accepting that vocation and making it a reality.
The contrast between this assertion and the conclusion of a poem by Haroon Rashid currently making the rounds on the internet are stark:
We fell asleep in one world, and woke up in another.
Suddenly Disney is out of magic,
Paris is no longer romantic,
New York doesn’t stand up anymore,
the Chinese wall is no longer a fortress, and Mecca is empty.
Hugs & kisses suddenly become weapons, and not visiting parents & friends becomes an act of love.
Suddenly you realise that power, beauty & money are worthless, and can’t get you the oxygen you’re fighting for.
The world continues its life and it is beautiful. It only puts humans in cages. I think it’s sending us a message:
“You are not necessary. The air, earth, water and sky without you are fine. When you come back, remember that you are my guests. Not my masters.”
While Rashid has “the world” saying to humans that they are not necessary, Christian hope begins in belief in the faithful love of God by whom we are loved infinitely and given dignity and value in that love. We begin to experience Christian hope in the encounter which occurs precisely as we draw near to Christ with the complexity and intensity of our questions, with our needs and obvious failings. Redemption involves a dual aspect by which we learn both about ourselves through the love given to us by God, and in that love are commission, called to work with God.
The Economy of Redemption
When we talk about the redeeming love of God, of our identity, our meaning and our vocation or commission within that love, we need to look at the way of Redemption, the so-called economy of Redemption, how it happens.
Baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ our identity and vocation involves a participation by us as individuals, as members of the Body of Christ, in the dynamics of the Christological, Pascal manner (that is the death and resurrection of Christ) of Redemption. Our own lives will therefore represent a particular moment of hope and a rich conduit of effective hope through our incorporation into the Pascal Christ.
The soteriological identity of the baptised can be seen not only from the perspective of our own need for Redemption, for forgiveness, healing and new life, but also from the perspective of a call and a corresponding duty received and laid upon us in baptism to enter into the Trinitarian working of Redemption. We are to receive and to dispense God’s effective, love working for the restoration of the wholeness of creation, living an existential proclamation of God’s desire for the fullness of life for each unique person in intimacy with God and communion with each other.
The foundation of human identity perceived in the love of God is an equality of dignity and worth for each individual loved by God: ICU and Respiratory consultants, immigrants, politicians, Presidents, young, old, differently abled, care givers, the vulnerable, the rich and the destitute, or soon to be destitute.
While the announcement of future resurrection and of eternal life, life in union with God Himself is the ultimate announcement of hope, the sine qua non of the its reality is the utter imperative to love, respect, serve and cherish each human person and to work with all ours skills for cultures and societies in which this mutual attitude becomes the path of life. A a natural catastrophe of global breadth and intensity would appear to be needed to bring us to consider the need for this change of attitude of mind, heart and practical behaviouss. The proclamation of the conquest of evil arising from the Redemptive nature of the love with which God loves us and calls us, the exposure to that love, is the key which can unlock our attitudes and efforts towards a very different world where we will require of ourselves and our structures an effective respect for all people and the needs of their daily lives.
God looks upon each of us with the same love with which the Father looked upon the Son, sending Him to save all people through His love. We, being called by this love are therefore called from within the Redemptive mission between the Father and the Son, and the missionary form of the Son’s love becomes the form of the baptised life. We receive ‘the salvific profile’ of Christ in our lives. Because of the profound communion of all humanity in the Word and in the power of the Pascal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, the work of Redemption is transferred to the level of humanity, as each baptised person takes on the life of Christ. Even as the individual is transformed, a ‘wide space’ opens in the individual for the ‘new creation’ in the world through which society and culture are also transformed and brought to participate in the Redemption. Through baptism our loving is taken into the power of Redemptive love. Within families, between ourselves and all whom we meet or on whose lives we have impact, we both participate in and dispense the love between the Father and the Son and the love between the Trinity and humanity.
The remoteness of these theological truths, perhaps seeming quite absurd, takes us with our sense of powerlessness, impotence, and fear into the self-emptying of Jesus Christ. Taking on the fullness of our own humanity, as did Christ, we see from the perspective of one loved infinitely by God the imperative to be rid of greed and selfishness and to heed the dignity, rights and needs of others. Both visibly and invisibly these co-workers with God, inhabiting both the emptying of Christ and the simultaneous dignity, darkness, despair and needs of humanity are able with Christ to ‘provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping’.
The celebration of Easter occurred around the time some countries were experiencing the height of the pandemic in terms of deaths and new infections. The vigil cry of the Easter Hymn brings to a climax the recitation of salvation and references the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ responding to the depth of our inability to generate our own source of hope:
O felix culpa, quæ talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!
O happy fault which gained for us so great a Redeemer!
Here and now in the midst of the fault lines of human existence exposed so pitilessly by the corona virus, this is the joyful cry of hope of all Christians, as we take our places in the vigil of the world still and for some time to come in terrible darkness, but already harbouring the Redemptive dawn of dignity, justice, equality and peace.
When we come back, to give a very different echo to the words of Rashid, we must remember that we are necessary because we are infinitely loved and we are indeed not masters, not even guests, but servants with the Son of Man who is the servant and redeemer of all.
John Paul II, Pope. Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of the Mystery of the Redemption. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html.
———. Sources of Renewal : The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council [in English]. London: Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1980.© Mary Stevens 29 April 2020