In his encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis spends a great deal of time examining the question of what effect faith can have on our lives – how it broadens our horizons and makes us more open to the other virtues; how it can act as a foundation for building community. But the encyclical also considers at length the reasons we have for faith in God, the basis we have for believing that God is trustworthy. The most central reason we have for trusting in God is of course Jesus, who ‘reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature’ (Hebrews 1:3). To see Jesus is to see the Father, and what we see in Jesus is pure, unconditional love. He shows this love pre-eminently in His dying for us on the Cross:
‘The clearest proof of the reliability of Christ’s love is to be found in his dying for our sake. If laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest proof of love (cf. Jn 15:13), Jesus offered his own life for all, even for his enemies, to transform their hearts. This explains why the evangelists could see the hour of Christ’s crucifixion as the culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth…
…it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in Christ’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death to bring us salvation. This love, which did not recoil before death in order to show its depth, is something I can believe in; Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely.’
In the complete gift of Himself, Jesus showed that he loved with every fibre of His being, and as Pope Francis says, this ‘overcomes every suspicion’. When someone gives of themselves so completely, and without any ulterior motive, they can be known as trustworthy. Thus we know in Jesus that His love is absolutely trustworthy, as He was willing to go the very depths of human experience so we might know and be transformed by His love. Pope Francis also goes on to consider how the trustworthiness of this love is further validated in Christ’s resurrection, which shows it is also a love that cannot be extinguished; it is a love that is stronger than death:
‘Christ’s death discloses the utter reliability of God’s love above all in the light of his resurrection. As the risen one, Christ is the trustworthy witness, deserving of faith (cf. Rev 1:5; Heb 2:17), and a solid support for our faith. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile”, says Saint Paul (1 Cor 15:17). Had the Father’s love not caused Jesus to rise from the dead, had it not been able to restore his body to life, then it would not be a completely reliable love, capable of illuminating also the gloom of death..’
God does not only go as far as possible to show us His love for us, to the point of death on a cross, but also shows us the power of this love. The love of God is not only capable of entering into every aspect of our experience in an act of complete self-sacrifice, but it shows that even the darkest parts of life, even death itself, will not have the final word. Love is indeed stronger than death, and we can trust in Jesus Christ that this is so. This is why the attempt by some Christians to deny the reality of the resurrection in the last century was such a damaging enterprise – if God did not really enter into history, and did not actually triumph over the powers of sin and death, then where is our anchor; in what would we be placing our faith?
Thankfully, the hypotheses put forward to deny the resurrection and leave it as a useful idea or symbol, have been shown to rest on ideological presumptions ingested from the surrounding secular culture, and objective historical assessment shows the claims of Christians from the first Easter morning onwards to rest on solid ground. Whether one believes God can act in the world or not is a philosophical question. Once one has answered yes to that question though, Christianity shows us a God that not only acts but acts with an undying love capable of overturning our expectations – a God who in fact is love, and worthy of our absolute trust.
These reflections of Pope Francis bring to mind the last couple of verses of George Herbert’s Evensong. Herbert was a man beset by afflictions of ill health and an anxious character throughout his life, but despite the many quarrels he had with God (evident in much of his poetry), he kept faith in the fact that whatever our experiences may be, whatever our ups and downs, the inner essence of reality is love, because God is love, and this Love will have the final say:
I muse, which shows more love,
The day or night; that is the gale, this th’ harbour;
That is the walk, and this the arbour;
Or that the garden, this the grove.
My God, thou art all love.
Not one poore minute ‘scapes thy breast,
But brings a favour from above;
And in this love, more than in bed, I rest.