Without hope, what is there?
The Tablet13 April 2017 The primary virtue at Easter might seem to be faith, needed in order to hold fast to the reality of Christ’s miraculous Resurrection in an age which rejects the very possibility. But there is a neglected virtue which ought to be at the core of an Easter spirituality, namely hope.
Hope illuminates not how the Resurrection happened, but why. Without hope, the Resurrection would be rendered pointless, even if one still believed it was true. So why has hope received so little attention? One reason may be that hope is often mistaken for optimism, which is easily punctured. The conviction that “things will turn out well in the end” is regularly proved to be unfounded. In the absence of a coherent and robust theology of hope, it is not difficult to confuse it with “baptised optimism”, which is both superficial and flawed. Does Christian preaching on hope make the distinction clear enough? It is precisely when things do not turn out well in the end that genuine Christian hope takes centre stage. The opposite of hope is not pessimism, but despair.
Judas despaired. He may even have been an optimist, believing that the betrayal of Jesus was the best available option in a tight corner. But he had lost the sense of a grand narrative of salvation in which Christ was the essential actor. So here is another reason for the neglect of hope. It is difficult. Amidst the torments of persecution, when martyrs face torture, hope is what keeps them human. Not hope that the suffering will end, but hope that it makes sense. There is a bigger picture, of which they are a part. But it is a mental and spiritual struggle to maintain this belief under pressure, which may be why hope is a supernatural virtue - it requires the grace of God.
On 15 April 1945, the British war correspondent Richard Dimbleby broadcast an improvised service attended by Jewish survivors from the newly liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Despite exhaustion and emaciation they sang the song of hope, the Hatikva, which became the Israeli national anthem. The survival of hope in these appalling conditions was not only miraculous in itself, but a reminder that there is a fundamental continuity between Jewish hope and Christian hope. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are conjoined narratives of hope. Each looks towards the same ending to the human story, when God will take his own to himself. “Thy kingdom come” is both a Jewish and a Christian prayer of hope.
But hope is not passive. The kingdom has to be built. Jesus returned to his disciples after Easter Sunday to commission them to do so. The kingdom has to be just and at peace, the lion must lie down with the lamb. The Sermon on the Mount is the template for that kingdom, but the faithful are its builders. It is a song of hope, and the fount of that Hope is the Resurrection itself, proof to the disciples then and now that there is a Divine Plan that can, even if it is seen through a glass darkly, be trusted.
We wish our readers a hope-filled Easter, for that is the only hope there is.