Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Substance of Hope

We have spoken thus far of faith and hope in the New Testament and in early Christianity; yet it has always been clear that we are referring not only to the past: the entire reflection concerns living and dying in general, and therefore it also concerns us here and now. So now we must ask explicitly: is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope?

Is it “performative” for us—is it a message which shapes our life in a new way, or is it just “information” which, in the meantime, we have set aside and which now seems to us to have been superseded by more recent information? In the search for an answer, I would like to begin with the classical form of the dialogue with which the rite of Baptism expressed the reception of an infant into the community of believers and the infant's rebirth in Christ.

First of all the priest asked what name the parents had chosen for the child, and then he continued with the question: “What do you ask of the Church?” Answer: “Faith”. “And what does faith give you?” “Eternal life”. According to this dialogue, the parents were seeking access to the faith for their child, communion with believers, because they saw in faith the key to “eternal life”.

Today as in the past, this is what being baptized, becoming Christians, is all about: it is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child—eternal life. Faith is the substance of hope.
Spe Salvi 10

Reflection – I have presented already on this blog most of this encyclical, back in the ‘Life With a German Shepherd’ days when I started blogging. When I was contemplating what I should blog about next, it occurred to me that perhaps I should just do the few paragraphs that have gone unblogged so far, so that the whole encyclical has been done. The rest of my posts on Spe Salvi can be found here.

It occurred to me that this is timely because we are in such dark times in the world right now, the violence, war, and vicious attack on innocent lives reaching a new crescendo of evil in Iraq, for sure, but the shock waves of this are felt in many corners of the world. In such times, a word of hope is all that more valuable.

Hope is a slippery, elusive thing. We use the word, properly, to describe all sorts of things: ‘I hope it’s a nice day tomorrow… I hope I get that job… I hope the tests come back negative… I hope she’s OK…’ Normal, natural hope, and sometimes our hopes are fulfilled, sometimes not.

But hope in the Christian sense—supernatural hope—is of a completely different character. It is both stronger and weaker than natural hope. Weaker, because there is nothing we can do whatsoever to secure the hope of eternal life; it is completely beyond our power to attain heaven. Stronger, because God wills to do in us what we can in no ways do ourselves, and while our efforts are prone to frustration and failure, His work is certain, sure, and unimpeded.

I think we often fall into great discouragement because we confound the two hopes. We yearn for all kinds of naturally good things—health and prosperity, peace and happy relationships, worldly success and long life—and that is fine, but then we sort of look to God for these things, as proofs of His love and His real presence in our lives.

But He never promised us any of those things. He promised us eternal life with Him in heaven. He promised us that He would be with us always, live in us. He promised us that He would prepare us a place where He is with the Father. He promised us mercy, forgiveness, and love. Not a word about physical health, financial security, or freedom from trouble and affliction (quite the opposite, really).

Christian hope is meant to be a rudder that keeps us pointed God-ward, heaven-ward, and eternity-ward. 

It is ‘performative’, in that it makes us radically prioritize our whole life towards our living communion with God, our following of Christ, our total obedience and surrender towards Him, not because He’s going to make us rich and famous, but because it is in this communion that we have the hope of heaven and eternity. And it is this hope that sustains us through the collapse of all human hopes, through dark times and fearful events in the world and in our own personal lives. And this is what we will be looking at this next week or so on the blog.