What is Christian Hope?


There was a time when the proclamation of faith was clear. Some matters, such as sexuality, were spoken of with modest discretion, but nevertheless almost every Catholic knew what to do and what not to do, sometimes even down to details that have become completely unworldly for later generations. “Everything that happens after twelve o’clock (at night) is sin” thundered the preacher from his pulpit above the heads of the faithful in a well-filled church, in which young and old, rich, and poor, listened side by side reverently. They understood very well what he meant by that: the youth had to go home on time after the weekly entertainment. Besides, at a time when there were far fewer transport options and people had to work longer and harder, that was the rule.

Around the sixties of last century, this changed. The discourse became softer and more hazy, and the word sin was used more and more rarely. The confessionals remained closed or were sold. In many areas of the life of faith, confusing innovations were accompanied by ambiguity, which inevitably resulted in more and more believers dropping out. After all, there were plenty of other enticing and more concrete innovations that absorbed people’s time and attention. Pope John XXIII opened the windows of the Church to a breath of fresh air with a legendary phrase, but since it blew in, crowds of believers have walked out of the Church Gate for good.

Christ regularly warned against the temptations of the world in his preaching, and so did the apostles. A true Christian seems rather unworldly to unbelievers. However, that is not the result of ignorance of what is going on in the world. Christians usually keep themselves well informed about earthly events, innovations and changing habits and power relations. The otherworldlyness of their attitude is that they do not allow themselves to be carried away by these transient realities and that they can distance themselves from all that is contrary in the world to the spiritual Kingdom of Heaven. The life path they walk is towards the eschatological future of the world. With foresight and hope, an authentic Christian looks forward to the ultimate transformation of the present material and temporary universe into a new spiritual and everlasting heavenly paradise. That is an inevitable end event that can still seem very far away to people, but which is imminent from a Divine vision.

The sources of strength that keep this hope alive are in the treasure that Christ gave us with his Gospel. Central to this is our redemption from evil and the unveiling of the true meaning of our lives. In addition, for the consistent Christians, there are of course also worldly things that they aspire or hope for during any part of their lives. However, the main direction of their desires is not toward material or social status improvement, but toward a stable inner happiness for themselves and their neighbors. They call this the divine virtue of the hope, and it is the result of their faith in Christ, who for them is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In turn, what drives this belief is authentic love, universally and eternally personified in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

The treasure of faith He bequeathed to the world is like a precious fuel. Not the fear (as atheists like to claim), but the love of truth and justice makes people discover, appreciate, and use this valuable fuel. From this comes the flame of Faith, Hope and Love, called the “three divine virtues” in the Catholic catechism. It warms them with the glow of hope and enlightens their minds with believing insight. It is stirred up by the Spirit of Love, who encourages them to spread this Divine fire among their fellow human beings, so that their path of life is also illuminated by God’s Word, and they too can warm themselves by this.

The explanation of these three basic elements of Christian soul life, that is currently regularly served to churchgoers sounds completely different. It speaks of “the younger sister hope that pulls her older sisters, faith and love, by the hands”. It looks like a scene with goddesses from Greek mythology.  There are undoubtedly many believers who find that cute, but whether such allegories are suitable for deepening their faith life is doubtful. This representation comes from a beautiful poem by the French poet Charles Péguy (1873-1914). In it he lets God speak, who says that He does not actually find faith and love that special, but that He is amazed that people in all their misery are always able to have hope. It is a moving reflection on “la condition humaine” or the human reality of life, but is it a Christian, let alone a divinely inspired explanation?

Faith, hope and love, cast in a mythological form, are actually concepts without content. One does not “believe”, but one believes IN something, one does not “love”, but one loves someone or something, one does not “hope”, but one hopes FOR something. A virtue is an attitude to life that focuses on something concrete. In a Christian context, these virtues are connected to Christ and his legacy to humanity: his life-giving word and example. Charles Péguy made a poignant poem, but if one gives his text a theological interpretation, then one is thoroughly wrong. He was a great poet and he was probably also great as an honest seeking man, but the atheistic socialism that he espoused for a major part of his life took its toll and apparently mixed with his later religious insights. His poem is about a fictional “girl or flame of hope”.  But that fiery girl is not the key element that propels or pulls christian faith or love.

The formal impetus for a Christian faith life is the first act of faith: the discovery of the amazing revelation that is the gospel and the inner decision to base your further life on it. “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus said many times to the people He healed of all kinds of ailments. God wants the act of faith: a free inner will decision that is made without worldly or outer guarantees, as a spark between the temporary and the eternal. It is the love of truth and justice that drives someone to do so. If love is not the basis, then faith simply serves no purpose, as St. Paul taught us. If that act of faith were inspired by “hope”, it would also be meaningless, for that hope would either be without content or would be focused on something that is not well known yet and therefore just a gamble, or a form of curiosity. Hope as a cause or stimulus that sets faith or love in motion is fundamentally a pagan representation of things. The hope of Christians is not the cause but the result of faith in the Gospel, a faith driven by a spontaneous love that focuses on the figure of Christ and that opens our eyes to the future reality of man and the world.

Thus, Christians are not encouraged or whispered by an existential hope, about which even God would marvel, to believe in two-thousand-year-old writings. Those writings testify to the historical Christ. It is the acquaintance with Him, who demonstrated with word and deed that He is God’s Son and our Savior, who gives them the believing insight from which they draw their hope. Converts are urged to do so by a spiritual love, and this is not a beautiful mythological big sister, but a gift of God that they have accepted and used internally. The flickering flame of hope that the French poet talks about, on the other hand, is existential in nature. It gives people the courage to go through the “struggle for life” and is aimed at a better life situation. Basically, this is an instinctive mechanism, of the same order as the fear that the atheists are talking about. So, it is certainly not something that God marvels about, but a valuable unconscious psychological support that He gave to his conscious creatures.

The Divine Virtue of Hope of which Catholic Doctrine speaks is purely spiritual in nature. It is inherently connected to Christian Love and Faith, just as the warmth of a flame cannot be separated from its light (as an emblem of Faith) nor from the fuel that nourishes it (the Word of God) and the oxygen that ignites it (the Love). In practice, of course, that fire of virtues does not always burn brightly and even the best Christians are sometimes more preoccupied with the perils in which the existential girl hope specializes, than by the missions to which the divine virtues urge us.  Spiritual fire can also be dying. But that does not mean that both forms of hope are the same, just as the “love” spoken of in chansons is not the same as the Christian love of God and neighbor. Also important is the realization that it is not the girl of humanistic hope who pulls the Christian cardinal virtues, but that on the contrary the divine virtue of hope reaches out to that shaky girl during the gloomy days of our earthly existence and supports it with her vision in the longer term.

Hereafter a translated summary fragment of the text of Charles Péguy, which was not written to    upholster pulpit speeches or for theological purposes, but as an ode to the strength and courage with which people manage to bear and if possible, improve their earthly destiny.

But what amazes me, God says, is hope.

I’m blown away by that.

They see what is going on in the world

And they believe that tomorrow it will all change.

What a miracle it doesn’t take

That they never experience that little hope as superfluous

But with careful gestures

Keep in their hands and in their hearts,

A flame that again and again

Staggers and threatens to strike down

But always knows how to get up again

And never wants to extinguish.

On the other hand, the authentic Christian life of faith places the veneration of Mary, the cause of our joy. We therefore end this reflection with the translation of a Spanish church song. It is a hopeful prayer to her whose life was the finest human example of unshakable trust in God and whose yes made our salvation possible.

When night falls and faith darkens,

Mother of all men, teach us to say “Amen.”

When the pain torments us and the illusion no longer shines,

Mother of all men, teach us to say “Amen.”

When the Light appears and we feel happy,

Mother of all men, teach us to say “Amen.”

When death comes and you lead us to heaven,

Mother of all men, teach us to say “Amen.”

This is how a true Christian hopes, trusts, believes and prays. Amen (so be it).

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