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Ian Hunter: Rejoice in hope

  • February 3, 2022

The Christian faith acknowledges three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity (today usually rendered “love”). The greatest of these may well be love (as St. Paul told the Corinthians) but in real life the most difficult virtue to practise — particularly in this broodingly ominous time — is hope. 

The Omicron wave of COVID-19 has been called variously a “flood,” a “wall” and a “tsunami.” Across Canada there have been more rounds of lockdowns, school closures, restrictions on gatherings and the accompanying public protests. 

On the international stage, the security of Ukraine and Taiwan is under new threat from Russia and China. Many commentators tell us that the foundational pillars of Western civilization are shaking. In such circumstances, it is difficult to see hope anywhere. Yet Christians are called not only to hope but to model hope for others.

When I confront a troubling theological dilemma, I generally begin with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The catechism provides this definition of hope: “The theological virtue by which we desire and expect from God both eternal life and the grace we need to attain it.” Properly understood, then, the virtue of hope has nothing to do with our current predicaments and controversies, and everything to do with the future. To me this is reassuring. It affirms that we can have hope in the midst of a pandemic however inconstant our politicians or disappointing our fellow citizens. Simply put, our hope is in things unseen, not in the mess that is all around us.

Pararaph 1817 of the catechism then provides a formula for hope: “placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on …the grace of the Holy Spirit.” These words echo what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews said (c.10:23): “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” 

In other words, my hope for the future derives not from the pronouncements of “infectious disease specialists” (and who would have guessed that we had so many!); nor the local health officers crowding the airwaves for their brief moment of fame; still less from the politicians who choose too late to tread around the same narrowing paths that have already proved ineffectual and lead nowhere. Instead our hope derives from the omnipotent, unfathomable Creator, the God who revealed Himself in the lineaments of a man whose birth we have just celebrated.

The catechism says Christian hope “keeps man from discouragement during times of abandonment.” I love the fact that our faith never denies “times of abandonment.” After all, Christ experienced this firsthand on the cross; hence the despairing cry: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me.” 

We seem to be living through a time of abandonment right now. Many people feel abandoned by their ostensible leaders, political and clerical. We need, I think, to recall that here we have no continuing city, that our Kingdom is “not of this world.” Is this easy to remember? No, certainly not. But, says the catechism (#1818): “Buoyed up by hope He is preserved from selfishness and led to happiness that flows from charity.”

So far this pandemic has not been marked by charity. From the unseemly scramble to get to the front of the line for vaccination (a scramble in which I participated), to the uneven distribution of the vaccines worldwide, this has mostly been a time for putting private benefit ahead of the public good.  But the catechism reminds us that the path out of discouragement comes through charity. This is a point that Mother Teresa not only understood but, throughout her life, embodied. In the selflessness demonstrated today by many health-care workers, we witness public charity; in the scramble to evade health-care restrictions, we witness its opposite.

The central reality of Christian hope lies in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; take that out of the equation and, as St. Paul said, we are of all people most miserable. But Jesus was raised from the dead and intercedes for us now in the presence of God; therefore we may (again quoting St. Paul to the Thessalonians) “rejoice in hope and be patient in tribulation.”

That is hope enough for me.

(Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

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