Hope, in the right way

Does it make sense to speak of hope? People struggle every day just to survive. How can they possibly lend their ears to a message of hope? It seems insulting to tell them time after time that things will get better, when manifestly there is no sign of improvement.

In the Christian perspective Advent is the season of hope. Nearly every day we hear the words of Isaiah on this. This Sunday we read,

Let the wilderness and the dry lands exult,

let the wasteland rejoice and bloom,

let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil,

let it rejoice and sing for joy.

What possible consolation is a mother to draw from this when her every waking hour is spent struggling to provide for her children?

Yet the Church insists on her message of hope. She has come to know that there is something fundamentally human in reaching out in hope even when there is no evidence that hope is justified. This was the situation of Israel in Egypt in the days of Moses and in modern times it was the situation in South Africa in the darkest days of apartheid.

Viktor Frankl, imprisoned in the ‘death camp’ of Auschwitz in World War II was stumbling to work under guard one icy winter morning when his wife (imprisoned in another camp) came into his mind. ‘Real or not her look was then more luminous than the sun … and I saw the truth … that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire … and I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world may still know bliss, … his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way, (and so) man can achieve fulfilment’.

By quoting Frankl I am not suggesting we should simply smile and bear our suffering s with resignation. No! It is more a matter of changing our attitude and letting our spirit reach beyond the present trials to the fulfilment that will come. Karl Marx accused Christians of teaching resignation in present sufferings in the hope of future happiness. That is decidedly not what we mean by Christian hope.

Twelve years ago Pope Benedict wrote a letter (Spe Salvi) on that little word ‘hope’. He spoke about hope as ‘knowing how to wait’.  We can wait passively, just sitting there ‘hoping for the best’. That is not true hope. The pope speaks of an active hope where we strain forward with ‘all our heart, all our mind and all our strength’ for the thing we long for.

Also, Benedict warns against an individualistic hope where a person thinks ‘he is a chosen one! In his blessedness he passes through the battlefields with a rose in his hand’! (Henri de Lubac). That also is not true hope.  We are not ‘saved’ alone.  We belong to the family of humanity and my hope embraces all people. As Nelson Mandela used to say, ‘I cannot be free unless all are free’.  St Bernard of Clairvaux told us, Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis, God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. So, in a sense, God is incomplete until we are all complete.

Finally, we cannot place our hope in investment, technology, ‘correct’ politics or economics. Without a conversion of heart no amount of fixing the system will lead to our hopes being realised. ‘It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love’. (Benedict XVI)

15 December 2019      Advent Sunday 3 A

Isaiah 35:1-6, 10          James 5:7-10                           Matthew 11:2-11

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