April 2, 2023 Essay: Practicing Hope

Mar 24, 2023

We tend to conflate hope with optimism. The hopeful person, it is said, sees the glass as half-full, looks on the bright side, and affirms that the future will be better than the present. But this is not how our ancestors in faith understood hope. Ancient theologians—monastics and spiritual writers—viewed hope as a midpoint between despair and what they called presumption, a careless laziness that believed things would work out for the best no matter what we do. Moreover, hope was not focused on the future but rather on how one lives in the present, especially in the face of bad news, tribulation, and failure. Liza Anderson, Ph.D., a scholar of early church history, reflects, “Hope was more often seen as a praxis for living in the present moment—faithfully doing the work that is put directly in front of you without falling into either presumption or despair.”

It’s difficult to imagine that Jesus was feeling optimistic as he entered Jerusalem on that fateful Palm Sunday, but his words and deeds affirm that he was hopeful. There was little cause for optimism, a positive attitude of mind that is influenced by how things appear to be trending in the world. Almost certainly, he’d heard of the warrant for his arrest, and perhaps he suspected that some among his companions might betray him. Though events spiraled downward from slander to mockery to violence, Jesus responded with patience, forgiveness, and non-violence. Among the most memorable of Jesus’ words were those spoken during his passion. They are a testament to his hope-filled heart, uttered in the most pessimistic of circumstances. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” “Peace I leave you.” “Abide in my love.” “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

When Jesus was arrested on trumped-up charges, when he was subjected to a kangaroo court, when his friends abandoned him, when his enemies spat in his face, and when he was nailed to the cross, I am sure he struggled with the very human temptation to give in to despair, to curse those who did this to him, to curse God for allowing such a fate, and to vow revenge. Jesus maintained his dignity, told mourners not to weep for him, and died with forgiveness on his lips. He engaged in the struggle to cooperate with God’s plan for peace, with God’s work of redeeming humanity from cycles of violence, and he persisted in the face of certain failure. His persistence in choosing peaceful and loving responses to the white-hot hatred he absorbed models what it means to practice hope.

Karl Rahner, the Jesuit priest/theologian, defined hope this way: “A woman sees the tiny rivulet of her life and fears that it might not mean anything, that it might die out completely. Yet she somehow still believes it will flow significantly into the great ocean, despite the immeasurably huge, dry sand-dunes it must cross to get to an ocean it cannot even see.” Our world, with its seemingly irreconcilable divisions in politics and church, with its plague of wars, with its fragile, precious environment endangered, can seem like that uncrossable desert Rahner describes. Despair lures us to give up; presumption leads us to believe the lie that we don’t need to do anything because everything will work out just fine. Hope invites us to continue this twilight struggle, though our individual stories might not unfold into positive outcomes.  Hope trusts that God’s grace is at work transforming creation into what God dreams it can be.  Hope calls for our cooperation with birthing that dream. Hope inspires us to live in the model and spirit of Jesus throughout Holy Week and every week.

— Brian Pinter, Pastoral Associate