From today’s Gospel reading for Mass:
I have told you all this that your faith may not be shaken.
They will expel you from the synagogues,
and indeed the hour is coming
when anyone who kills you
will think he is doing a holy duty for God.
They will do these things
because they have never known
either the Father or myself.
But I have told you all this,
so that when the time for it comes
you may remember that I told you.
There’s some hope cropping up these days. Hope about flattened curves and opening up and so on. Plus, it’s spring. Hard to repress hope in spring.
But just a reminder: hope is not the trust that everything will be back to normal soon. Hope is not trusting—even in God—that tomorrow will be a better day. Hope is not optimism that everything will be better soon.
Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit…
…The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.
I think a decent goal to work for in preaching, teaching, sharing, and just living the Gospel is to not present a paradigm that will, at some point, invariably ring hollow. In other words, to try not to be Job’s friends.
Life is hard, weird, and mysterious. Twenty-first century beneficiaries of varying degrees of global prosperity and material ease are at a disadvantage here, because it’s so easy to hide from that truth. To beat my usual drum, Jesus lays this out frequently: all your stuff and comfort is an obstacle to finding God. Why?
Because it tempts you to misplace your hope.
No, we’re not French or Russian troops dying by the tens of thousands during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, or the peasants inconveniently in their way; we’re not in London living with the deep uncertainty of the Blitz; most of us have more than a few months to live. Probably.
But who knows?
And that’s the point.
Jesus tells us over and over: ultimately trust and hope in him, not anyone or anything else. That means don’t let your peace and confidence in who you are and why you’re here and where you’re going depend on anything else: your current health, your abilities, your achievements, what other people tell you about yourself, your sense of what the future holds materially.
Because look back up there at that Gospel reading. What is Jesus promising? That “things will be better” tomorrow? Or that the suffering of the present moment will disappear? That their lives will get more comfortable soon—they just need to wait it out?
No, that doesn’t seem to be what he’s saying.
More and more, I’ve come to believe that the greatest sea-change and challenge to Christian faith over the past century has not been Communism or Nazism or any other sort of authoritarianism, or some generic “liberalism,” or really any “ism.” I’m convinced the greatest challenge is general material prosperity, flexibility, mobility, technological advancement, and choice. Would I rather be living without any of that? Of course not!
But I also recognize the temptation—the temptation to place my trust and my sense of ultimate meaning in all of that; to operate under the assumption that because, thanks to all of that, I no longer seem to be a victim of my circumstances, I have more agency in the cosmos and greater power over nature, that I don’t need God. At least not quite so much.
That I have all of this in which I can place my hope. God: optional.
Tragedy tends to shake you up on that score. It forces you to re-evaluate and to look at whatever or whoever has been lost and say, Well. Maybe I did rely too much on that for my sense of happiness. And look at that. It—he—she—is gone. Just—gone. Where can I find hope now?
The trouble is that popular Christianity let us go on our merry way forgetting, and it even encouraged us to forget. It encouraged us by cutting us off from history and from the tradition that had grown organically in times of helplessness and hope; it encouraged us by preaching various forms of prosperity gospels, whether those are centered on “name it and claim it” or on “you follow God best when you follow your dreams.”
This pandemic has indeed been a great tragedy for some, and at the very least, a great shaking-up for others. For most of us, it’s not at the level of various other horrors that human beings or nature are capable of piling on. Read some history, or even just get some awareness of the great poverty in which so many around the world live today, to get perspective.
So for the Church to take this moment of tentative re-opening and present “Whew! We got through that! Better days ahead!” as the core spiritual lesson would be almost criminal. For while there may be hope of staving off absolute economic collapse, or while more of us may be able to go out to eat or gather for worship or just go outside without fear—what’s still going on? The impoverished are still going without, and now even more so. Cancer and other diseases still eat away at bodies. Children are still born weak and compromised. The mentally ill still struggle. Abuse, exploitation, loneliness, addiction, fear. Wars and the threat of war still lurk.
Do your words on “hope” take that into account?
Because if you’re steeped in the Word of God and in traditional Christian spiritual thinking, they will be. You’ll understand and be able to communicate something more profound than, “Here we are all together again! Ain’t it great!”
When you read Christian spiritual writing, from the Scriptures on through history, what you see is that at every turn, the, er, “thought leaders” of the past—with all their diversity and differences—all understood the danger and temptation of false hope. And they encouraged all to see whatever they were experiencing at any given moment—good, bad, pleasant, or difficult—as an invitation to go deeper, to strip one’s life down, and gradually to let everything fall away except the One who will be all that’s left at the end.
Are these good times? Praise God, the giver of all that is good. Are these bad times? Trust God, pray for help, and hope in eternal life.
Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.
This experience has been something, that’s for sure. And perhaps—like the fender-bender you had that was minor, but was also just the wake-up call you needed to understand that yes, maybe you should be paying more attention, or like the (ahem) bike accident you had that could have been a lot worse and that reminded you that you’re not invincible—it’s enough to lead to conscience-jostling and re-evaluation of priorities and an honest answer to Jesus’ challenge above: Do we remember what he told us?
(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the “Charlotte was Both” blog in a slightly different form.)
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