Hold Your Head high

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said, “One who has hope lives differently.” If you think about it, he’s exactly right. Whether your hope is in something or someone in this world or has its proper meaning as a theological virtue, your life is lived differently. Sometimes this looks like whimsical optimism, a smile despite the rain and clouds, and sometimes it is seen in the beauty of a crowd of beleaguered and all-too-accustomed-to-loss fans rooting for their team amid a ninth-inning comeback. To witness hope in its fullest sense is to see the face of the martyr as he is led to his death.

When we are challenged to “hold our head high” we are often being asked to suffer without complaining, to persevere despite adversity; and yet our focus on the virtue of hope may get lost while “holding our head high.” Hope, properly speaking, “is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1817). Hope is therefore in the eternal and generous love of God—not in this world, not in these times, not in this or that person, but in Christ alone.

Many times in the New Testament hope is the focus, as the early Christians experienced tremendous persecution, suffering, and ultimately martyrdom (Rom 4:18; 5:5; 1 Thess 5:8; Titus 3:6-7; Heb 10:23). We are almost accustomed to the daily news of persecution against Christians in the world today, yet we find time and again that they are not a people without hope. The recent Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, a stark reminder of how precious life is, was not without scenes of great hope. The protection offered by Muslims to Catholics to worship in their mosques was a sign of charity, of course, but also one of hope where we see our Lord’s prayer that we “may all be one” come to flesh in the unity of mankind. The resilience of those Sri Lankan families in overcoming the utter despair that so many of us can imagine in such a moment continues to shape that culture and will be a great testament in the centuries to come of how hope bears life.

But to get back to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s statement that people of hope live differently, it helps to see where Christian hope comes from. The Catechism states: “Christian hope unfolds from the beginning of Jesus’ preaching in the proclamation of the beatitudes. The beatitudes raise our hope toward heaven as the new Promised Land; they trace the path that leads through the trials that await the disciples of Jesus. But through the merits of Jesus Christ and his Passion, God keeps us in the ‘hope that does not disappoint’” (1820, quoting Rom 5:5). In other words, to be a people of real hope, we need to be people of the beatitudes.

People of the Beatitudes

This section of St. Matthew’s Gospel finds Jesus giving his most famous sermon, challenging the status quo of the people in terms of how they see the world (Matt 5:1-12). There is something incredibly brilliant and simple about Jesus’ preaching—it turns the world on its head! As if scales were falling from their eyes and wax was melting out of their ears, the words of Jesus radically reorient his listeners toward the kingdom of heaven, so that they are no longer slaves to this world but rather pilgrims living in the world but not of it. Strongly contrasting with this vision is the kingdom of the world: hope is trampled upon as countless people experience disappointment in the change and greatness they were promised by human leaders who fail to provide the happiness that comes only from “placing our trust in Christ” (CCC 1817).

Of all the beatitudes, when our Lord says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:10), I am deeply struck by the challenge this presents to a Christian. At a human level, to be blessed for being persecuted seems an empty message: How can suffering, being cursed and ill-treated, losing friends, job opportunities, and even family be a good? At the same time, if you are being persecuted “for righteousness’ sake” doesn’t that mean you also think you’re better than everyone else—that you are righteous? These questions could pick us apart if we lose focus on what the theological virtue is really about.

The blessing Christ promises is not here and now: it is explicitly in the life to come! Does this mean all our suffering here on earth is meaningless? Certainly not! However, this beatitude is not a promise that you will feel warm and fuzzy amid your persecution. The blessing is that amid persecution you won’t lose your mind and betray God and the faith he has given you—that is, you won’t despair. In the Catechism, despair is in the third section, “Life in Christ,” and grouped with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In this section of the Catechism, the Church meditates on and explains the Ten Commandments in both a positive and negative sense: positive in describing what they are and the good they bear; negative in describing violations against them. Under the theological virtue of hope, we find the sin of despair as a violation of the First Commandment: “By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice—for the Lord is faithful to his promises—and his mercy” (CCC 2091). Letting the world frustrate us is one of the greatest signs of a weakness in the virtue of hope, and the Church commends to us the practice of acts of hope to help us grow in this virtue. Despair is not the cry of the Christian, but rather the empty gasp of man who is tethered to this world and has lost sight of his eternal home.

The other challenge of this beatitude is the whole question of being persecuted “for righteousness’ sake.” If anything is unpopular in today’s divisive world, it is one who claims some kind of moral superiority, one who claims that his understanding or worldview is greater than others’. This is evident in public discourse, mom blogs, and especially the divisive Catholic blogosphere that nits and picks ad nauseam. But against that worldview, one of relativism and a “you do you” mentality, stands the stark reality of Christ’s life and teaching. Whether he is your God, a great man and moral leader, or an interesting historical figure, no one can deny that his person, his history, and his impact has been of far greater significance than any other person in human history. The testament of the millions of persecuted and martyred Christians through the ages give witness to the truth that life in Christ is our greatest strength. However, when you are being persecuted for “righteousness’ sake,” we must remember it is not your righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ himself. Jesus reminds us of this, that all this evil against you is done falsely “on my account” (Matt 5:11). In other words, your righteousness is not you, but Christ living in you, as St. Paul says. So we can dispel this false fear that stems from thinking as the world does, and instead put on the mind of Christ and stand fast in our hope of the promises he has made to us (Phil 2:5).

As I said earlier, man does often—not maliciously or with ill-intent—place his home in things and people of this world. It is a credit to the goodness of men that we place our hope in each other. However, there is an underlying assumption that men have the capacity to do something we are actually incapable of: bringing each other everlasting happiness. It is perfectly acceptable to have hope that your parents will feed you and shelter you; that your spouse will remember your anniversary and shower you with love; that you are going to see the Rangers finally win a World Series (probably not this year, folks!). But it is not the stride of the Christian to walk in the ways of the world and hope in things we can see, but rather to race toward his heavenly home and live eternally in a world thinly veiled.

Returning to the Catechism, we see that this hope in the world, hope in our own capacities, hope in God’s mercy without conversion has a name: presumption (2092). The sin of presumption presents itself in some obvious ways in our moral lives. Knowing we are in a state of mortal sin, we present ourselves for reception of Holy Communion, presuming something like this: “God understands I’m a sinner, he gets me . . . it’s not that big a deal.” Where’s the conversion? Where’s the humble and contrite heart? Or maybe the subtle voice of presumption sounds like this: “God, I know I struggle with this sin, but I know I can overcome it.” What sounds like the beginning of a prayer for God’s help becomes an assertion of our own willpower and self-validation. The failure to recognize presumption in our life is a sin against the virtue of hope, against the commandment to love God above all else, because in reality we are in love with ourselves (see CCC 2090).

The Response of Joy

It may seem odd, but the most hope-filled people I’ve met in my short life have also been the most joyful people I’ve known. Though I never knew her personally, Mother Teresa immediately comes to mind when I think of hope-filled people, and pretty much any time you saw her she was radiant with her smile and her joy. When asked what the source of her joy was, she was resolute and often too simple for us to understand: Jesus was her answer! Whether encountering him in the Eucharist during her numerous hours of daily adoration, or in the poorest of the poor she and her sisters were serving, the woman was simply “one who lived differently.”

This joy that flows from the fountain of hope is real and overcomes human conditions because it finds its source in the summit to which we are all drawn: our heavenly home (CCC1821). St. Paul said, “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation” (1 Thess 5:8). Maybe we should pay attention again to that: rejoice and be patient. Is this possible? We tend not toassociate joy with being patient, since being happy in our fast-paced and technocentric world demands immediate satisfaction and constant stimulation. But here we have it in the scriptures from Jesus and Paul: patience amid tribulation is a sure source of joy and is manifestly the fruit of hope.

Too often we see the gloom of our culture, a world fractured by division that stems from so many sources they are too numerous to count, and we become despondent; that is, we begin down the road of despair. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said once, “To have Christian hope means to know about evil and yet to go to meet the future with confidence.” This is not the wish of some aloof scholar in his ivory tower, but rather the words of a man who, like all of us, has been tried by the world and found it wanting. With real hope the world fails to impress upon us the way that God alone can, for we are not made for this world but for the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus reminds us. Let us therefore stride toward our heavenly home as a people grounded in the confident hope that comes from doing the will of God and living in the light of his abundant love—and who joyfully share this contagious thing called hope!