As the world gets to know Pope Francis, one thing is becoming overwhelmingly clear: this is a man who takes the symbolic meaning of his actions very seriously. From the way he travels to the way he preaches, from where he stays to how he prays, this is a man whose dispositions and actions reveal a character marked by the virtues of piety, simplicity, humility, and solidarity with the poor.
Illustrated by this picture recently posted on Facebook by Catholic Relief Services, Pope Francis’ emerging legacy already seems to focus on doing. Just like the parable of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus reminds his disciples it’s not enough to know that the heart of Christian faith is to love God and one’s neighbors; his command is to “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). In studies of what determines whether or not Christians are actually good neighbors, Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom reports that religious education, family background, moving sermons, and even the degree of one’s personal piety matter far less than belonging to the kinds of relationships and networks that inspire and sustain a commitment to practicing these attitudes and actions.
Much has been written this week about Pope Francis’ exhortation for Christians to spend time this Holy Week to go to the ones who are suffering (including great pieces like this and this in Millennial). This echoes the repeated calls of Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino to care for the “crucified peoples” of today. Sobrino’s theology is oriented by his conviction that the gospels depict in Jesus a man who cared more about people’s suffering than their sinfulness. Attentive to this suffering and mindful of Leonardo Boff’s indicting claim that future generations will call us “barbarian, inhuman, and shameless for our great insensitivity to the suffering of our own brothers and sisters,” Sobrino turns to Jesus’ resurrection as “our final view of existence and its meaning [for] what we can hope for, what we must do.”
Sobrino’s emphasis on the resurrection is not naïve Easter euphoria or utopianism. Instead, he reminds us that the resurrection is the source of the Good News, the dynamism that helps us face the “greatest hurdle facing evangelization,” which is “the lack of conviction that good news is possible.” Indeed, Easter Sunday gives us new eyes to see what we can hope for and what we must do.
Because Good Friday isn’t the end of Jesus’ story – Easter is.
Thus, more is possible because of what we believe and celebrate on Easter. But this is more than looking backward at a historical event, or anticipating a future, eschatological reality. Sobrino employs a line from the brilliant theologian Karl Rahner to describe Jesus’ triumphant resurrection as a “permanent prevailing,” which allows us “to experience the repercussions of Jesus’ resurrection as such in our own lives here and now.”
This leads Sobrino to conclude that the resurrection – as already but not fully realized – allows us to live now as “risen beings” entrusted with the mission to “do what God himself does: to take the victim Jesus down from the cross.” Sobrino then insists that this requires that we work to take the “crucified peoples” down from their crosses today. This is what it means to say that the resurrection is something to be lived: we are called to follow the crucified Jesus and put the Risen Christ into action.
Living as risen beings means to practice resurrection (to quote a line from Wendell Berry’s “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”). Augustine once preached, “We are a resurrection people and Alleluia! is our song.” This is what the prophet Isaiah refers to when envisioning the new heavens and the new earth (Is 65:17) and what Saint Paul meant when he described the “new creation” made possible in Christ. According to Paul, for Christian disciples everywhere, this implies the gift and task of participating in this new creation as Christ’s own “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16-21).
In his pastoral letters, Paul attests to the fact that this is the way to cultivate the virtue of eusebeia, commonly translated as “piety” or “godliness” (e.g., 1 Tim 2:2, 4:7-8; Titus 2:1-10). Eusebeia provides a bridge to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. It is the virtue of ordering ourselves first to God, and making this right-relationship the foundation for pursuing and practicing the other virtues in relationships with others. It is a virtue not for piety’s sake, but for restoring right-relationship, wholeness, and balance (shalom) with all God’s people.
It is this virtue that seems to most effectively express the example being set forward by Pope Francis. Perhaps his humble, joyful example will inspire more of us to realize our vocation as Easter people and to practice resurrection wherever we are.
And, like the Good Samaritan, to be willing to go out of our way and into the ditch so we can be risen beings together, on the margins and with those who are suffering and crucified today. To make the places we find ourselves – at home, in school, at work, in our neighborhoods and parishes – communities of practice to inspire and sustain these virtues for loving God and our neighbors.