As I was running in my socially distanced neighborhood, I saw that someone had painted a rock with the word “hope” and displayed it on public land. Hope is the engine that drives human endurance. Without hope, we can’t go on.
All humans need hope to continue on, but hope can be a tricky thing to grasp. The theologian Hermann Sasse once observed that human society seems to vacillate between, on the one hand, an unshakeable belief in progress and the perfectibility of the human race, and, on the other hand, abject hopelessness and despair. Sometimes society goes from one extreme to another without even pausing to take a breath.
One moment, humans across the globe seem confident in themselves and carrying on with their ordinary lives as if everything is going well. Then the next moment, humanity is crippled by the coming of a virus that changes everything. A few short months ago, many of us were planning our lives with full confidence that we would graduate, get married, complete projects, and go on summer vacation. Now all of those plans have been thrown out the window.
Many of us struggle with anxiety. Yet we need not give up hope.
Hope, along with faith and love, is one of three gifts from God that form the Christian life. While faith forms the relationship with God and love the relationship with the neighbor, hope forms the Christian’s relationship with the future. In the midst of world events, the Christian is called and enabled to look towards the future in the full confidence of hope.
Such talk may sound simplistic or naïve, but it is not. Christian hope is not just a vague feeling that everything is going to turn out okay and our plans are going to work out. It’s not even the idea that if we do what God wants, He will reward us by giving us what we want.
While faith forms the relationship with God and love the relationship with the neighbor, hope forms the Christian’s relationship with the future.
The disciples of Jesus figured this out the hard way at His crucifixion. The disciples had hoped that Jesus would be the kind of Messiah for which their people had planned: a political liberator who would kick out the Romans. When things turned out otherwise, they despaired and fell away from Jesus.
As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus demonstrated, these hopes of Jesus’ followers were dashed by the crucifixion. But God gave them all a new hope, a real hope, standing right in front of them! The real hope of the disciples and the real hope of all Christians is the risen Christ. When the followers of Jesus realized that He was risen, the new gift of hope turned them from despair to celebration. After Jesus ascended to His Father, the hope of His resurrection turned them all into preachers. They shared the Good News of true hope with others, as they proclaimed the risen Christ to the whole world.
We who live under the shadow of COVID-19 have that same hope: the hope of the risen Christ. This hope--a hope only God can give us--is not just the expression that everything will be alright. It’s not just trusting that someday this whole pandemic will just be a question on a Trivial Pursuit card. It’s not even the belief that we will be okay through this outbreak, even if others die in the midst of it. True hope is the confidence that death is not final.
The disciples of Jesus thought that His death was the end; their messianic hopes were gone. These hopes, though, were wrong in the first place, and God replaced them with a much better hope.
Death was not the end of Jesus. Instead, Jesus was the end of death!
That Jesus conquered death became the new hope of the disciples and the new hope of all of us who believe. As St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus’ defeat of death now belongs to us who hope in Him. Jesus is risen, and one day, we too will rise. All of us who have been baptized into Jesus have been baptized into His death and will also rise to new life with Him (Rom. 6:1-4). Christian hope means that death is now but a rest for us, a peaceful sleep from which Jesus will awaken us when He returns for us (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Christian hope means that every time we place the body of a loved one in the ground, we do so in the full confidence that the Jesus who claimed them as His own in the promise of baptism will one day make good on that promise and raise them to life again.
Yet, there is even more to Christian hope. Jesus hasn’t only promised to raise us from death, He has also promised to renew all of creation, to end suffering, disease, and evil forever. St. Paul says that Christian hope includes the confidence that “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of God” (Rom. 8:21).
Real hope is not just hope that everything that has been upended by this pandemic will return to “normal,” though we hope it does. Real hope isn’t just the hope that there will be a successful vaccine for COVID-19, though we do hope for that. Real hope is that the risen Christ will return and fix everything wrong with this broken creation, and that this cure will last for all eternity.
The hopes of human society ebb and flow, but the gift of hope given by the God who raised Jesus from the dead lasts forever. To those of us who have received that hope, our risen Lord has a task for us. It is the same task that He gave to His first disciples: tell others so that they also receive this gift of hope.