February 2005

 

The Sureness of Hope ©

When I trained for running marathons – some 30 pounds ago – there were days when water would not touch that deep thirst that you get after perspiring a lot on a hot and humid day.

We have all had the experience of some drinks quenching thirst less than others. What is lacking in some beverages that may be present in others? In the case of thirst induced by heavy perspiration, our body needs salt to replace what has been lost through exertion.

In the Gospel according to John we find the story of Jesus offering to a Samaritan woman standing by Jacob’s well water that quenches so completely that she will never have to drink again.

What is the water Jesus speaks of? Is it God’s Holy Spirit or God’s Word? Certainly. Jesus says that one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Cf. Matt. 4:4.) Is it Jesus himself? Of course. Jesus is the incarnate word (Cf. Jn.1:14.), and he tells us himself that he is truth and that he is eternal life (Cf. Jn.14:6.)

But these are all easy answers that speak to the mind and to our understanding of how important faith in Jesus is. What exactly is the active ingredient in this water that causes us to “not need to drink again.” What is the salt that this water replenishes in the soul?

The answer is to be found, I think, in a very important passage of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he says confidently and unequivocally, “Hope does not disappoint us.”

The hope that Saint Paul speaks of is rooted in faith. He writes: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

Many of us are content to live our spiritual lives with the idea that this is simply a promise of the reward that awaits us in heaven. But it means much more. It means that the glory of God is our portion now in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us and the human anguish that sometimes inhabits our hearts.

Again, we look to the teaching of Saint Paul: “And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our heart through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Note the past tense: “has been poured into our hearts” and “has been given to us.”

All through his own teachings, we find that Jesus is either directly or indirectly recalling this message. Three golden threads are woven through the fabric of all that he says and, most especially, all that he does. The good news that he proclaims is faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these being love.

But love does not just appear out of nowhere. Love grows on the tree of hope, of which faith is the root. Everything that Jesus teaches can be cast in that light.

When performing miracles, Jesus often comments on strength of faith or lack of faith. This is the base, the foundation. Certainly having faith and living according to that faith is important.

Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel that someone who hears his words and acts on them, in other words, believes in the good news and lives by it, is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose – meaning the flood of temptation or the flood of life’s numerous trails, set-backs – the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it was well built (Cf. Luke7: 46-49.)

Love too gets several memorable mentions.

Hope, on the other hand, is more in the subtext. It is the product of faith because it derives its evidence from the principle pillar of our faith, namely the Resurrection. It is not wishful thinking. It is sure and confident because it has the repeated experience – physically – of sunrise and springtime, and – spiritually – of the Resurrection.

Hope is the link between faith and love. Faith gives us a reason to hope, and hope gives us the will to love. Hope is the spice of faith and the energy of love. Hope is the decoder of what Jesus says about faith and love. For instance, when Jesus says sell everything and follow me, for the most part he is using figurative language. Most especially, he is saying, go and sell your timid faith and follow me in trust and total confidence to a place where I will give you a reason to hope in possibilities that you cannot see or even imagine.

We are told that the Samaritan woman “left her water jar.” She turned from Jacob’s well to Hope’s well, from which life springs eternal.

He might add, the proof that I have given you of the fruitfulness of hope in God is my Resurrection. Your witness of that hope will be the love you show to God and your neighbour.

Jesus says to us still today, follow me, and hope in me, not in the things that will wither or rust. Hope in my mercy, my love and my faithfulness, not in the things or even the people that betray, disappoint or abandon you.

He says too, follow me. Hope in me, and love as I do, not as the world teaches. Hope in me, and I will give you peace, not as the world gives it. What I will give you because of your faith will be everlasting hope – hope of everlasting life

Writing about hope during the season of Lent brings us to the topic of penance. Penance is a good Lenten word. As a Secular Franciscan, it is a word dear to my heart. The order that I belong to was once called The Brothers of Penance. The first few friars were known as The Penitents of Assisi.

The problem with the word penance is that it was misunderstood for too long. In too many cases, it has either been embraced for the wrong reasons or shunned for other wrong reasons. There is healthy penance but there is also harmful penance.

Healthy penance has as its active ingredient the hope that Saint Paul writes about. It is true that penance is about remorse and letting go of things that hinder our relationship with God or with one another, but if it ends there, penance can have unhealthy consequence. What can emerge are either negative images of God and destructive images of our self or spiritual vanity. Neither of these is healthy.

Healthy penance sees and feels the overwhelming love of God. It also sees the inherent goodness that is in us. It hopes in new possibilities centred on the mercy and benevolence of God, and it desires – above all else – to act, and to do so lovingly.

In other words, healthy penance desires above all else communion with God and reconciliation with our neighbour by turning away from the little as well as the bigger things that separate us from God and our sisters and brothers in Christ.

Penance takes its meaning from the word repentance, which is the first meaningful action that we take as a response to God’s prior and unconditional love. The word “repent” suggests an action, more than a feeling. It is the action of turning around …to turn away from the darkness of sin and to turn toward the light that is Christ.

Repentance is a powerful force when it accepts and embraces the love that God had for us long before we even became aware of him. This awesome love is concretely expressed as God’s genuine concern for our well-being and his eagerness to forgive.

Repentance is the journey of the prodigal son who turned to walk toward his merciful and loving father. So, repentance assumes the presence of hope, if only the hope that a father’s love will outweigh his anger.

It is such a hope that caused the prodigal son to turn to his father. And, it was such a hope that caused Saint Peter to not opt for despair after the death of Jesus, as Judas had done.

Saint Peter turned from the darkness of his grief after having abandoned his friend, by accepting Jesus’ prior love, by proclaiming his own love. Hope is what Judas lacked, and he died of thirst for the water that never fails. Judas did not hear as we did today, from the words of Saint Paul, “Hope does not disappoint.”

Some of you know of the work that I do with people who are dealing with loss. During more than 10 years of this ministry, I have come to discover that the active ingredient in healing as believers in the reality of our Lord Jesus Christ is the building up or restoration of hope …specifically hope centred on the great mystery of Christ’s own victory over darkness.

What seems to make the difference in dealing with grief is not faith per se, though faith is the foundation. It is not even love, though love is the real sign of healing.

No, it is hope. Hope is the virtue that ties together all the rest. It brings faith to life and makes it possible to love despite the pain. It is hope that justifies all the work that is needed to reinvest our energy in the various aspects of human existence – our physical well-being, our emotional health; our social involvement and our spiritual life.

Hope transforms grief that we experience, which is our natural but tragic emotional response to loss, into a slow but steady climb out of the darkness that surrounds us. Hope is the thread by which we are gently pulled from this quagmire of sadness. Unlike despair, sadness associated with loss that has a grip on Christ-centred hope is temporary. Ultimately, it draws us to fresh new beginnings, and to the Resurrection.