Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope but do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
As we start another day, another week, there is a lot going on that will bring us face-to-face with the choice between hope and despair. Despair by far is the easiest choice. This world seems to be coming apart – the headlines say it all: coronavirus positive tests surging in the United States and many places in the world, a citizenry that argues about masks/face covering in the middle of pandemic, small business owners worried about their livelihood while there are reports of government aid going to large
multi-million dollar corporations, uncertainty about school openings, racial injustice protests and cries for change, the rollercoaster of our economy, the canceling of college sports, taking down of monuments – and all of this churned together as fodder for the upcoming election cycle.
This is being written on July 7th – who knows what will have happened by the time you read this. There was an article that appeared in yesterday’s news feed: first cases of bubonic plague discovered in China. This is all at home. I have not even turned my attention to the rest of the globe. Turn on any talk radio or 24-hour news station and you can easily be bombarded and overwhelmed by negativity and despair.
Despair is the easy option. Hope forces you to believe in a bigger, loving God in the midst of a world that seems to be falling apart as the cycle of violence consuming our world is endless. It makes it tough to envision a future and so people are tempted to look to the past “when things were good.” Or at least the misty water-colored memories are good. In the face of the world-as-it-is, what ought we to expect for the future? I don’t have an answer for that, but I know this: a Christian is called to go forward with hope. “The one who has hope,” Benedict XVI tells us, “lives differently.”
The mark of authentic Christianity has always been a paradox: it is thoroughly rooted in God’s creation as it is, at the same time, focused on moving toward God himself. Authentic Christianity is a dynamic balance of the now and the not-yet. The virtue of hope is not different. It is a dynamic balance of our humanity and yet as divine as only God can make it.
In the Western artistic tradition, the symbol of hope has been the ship’s anchor, that saving equipment of ships adrift in the winds and waves of the storm. When sailors throw the anchor and it grabs the solid seabed below, it promises security and grounding to the crew. It does not make the storm less severe, it makes it endurable until the skies clear and waves calm.
More than the anchor itself, the simple event of it being thrown and its stabilizing effect on the ship is a fair image of the working of hope. As fragile beings, we are tossed around by the winds and waves of the present. We need and want stability, and we find it by tying ourselves through the bond of hope to some future event. And through hope, we can find stability and meaning in our stormy present. Hope in a bright future carries a student through the drudgery of courses and exams; hope in a blissful life brings a young couple to the altar; and hope in just the hint of an idea helps a pastor begin to fill in an empty column.
What is hope? It is a vital bond between the future and the present, a state of expectation that brings sense into much — perhaps all — that we are doing. Embedded as we are in the present, we are creatures of the future. Our whole being tends toward what we hope for — a much-desired favorable event. Take away our hope, and we find ourselves in a void worse than Dante’s inferno.
But human hope is fragile. Through it, our life is nourished from a source that we do not possess, a source that exists only in our expectation. No matter how strong our hope is, a gap remains between what we have and what we hope for. Though we try to bridge the distance between the present and the future by hope, no human power can remove the waiting. This is our human condition. Ultimately, human hope carries an element of uncertainty.
Not so with divine hope: there is no gap, no space between the future and the present, because the kingdom of God is at hand and “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6). Our Christian hope is rooted in the possession of the substance to be revealed, not in the expectation of a substantial gift to come. If we “have been raised with Christ…seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1), we have all that we can ever hope for — even if we need immense patience to wait for its revelation.
The proclamation of the Second Vatican Council that we are a pilgrim people is true, but it does not tell the whole truth: We already carry the future in our heart. The object of our hope is not that we shall enter the kingdom, because we are already there, but that God will never let us lose this future and that God, in his own good time and in our allotted time, will reveal it.
The difference between human hope and divine hope is the difference between worldly goods and heavenly gifts. One is the product of our efforts; it makes life bearable on earth. The other is God’s intervention in our life, a touch of the infinite. One ties us to the earth, the other ties us to God.