It seems to me that we take “hope” for granted. Of course, as good Catholics we know that we are not to presume the mercy of God, or his blessings. So we might protest that we do no such thing; we know that God is in no way obliged to give us anything, that everything—including any hope we might have—is his free gift. And, in a sense, we would be right in doing so. But the readiness we have to assert this protest may very well be an indication of a familiarity that breeds, if not contempt, at least a glib thoughtlessness or complacency.
What I mean is this: the culture in which we live has been steeped, for two thousand years of Christianity, in the language of hope. And the longer one is immersed or surrounded by something, the less one notices or questions it. Unless we are scientists, we do not ask “why should the air have oxygen in it?” We simply breathe, not wondering whether, in the next breath, we will be asphyxiated. So it is with hope. We tend to simply assume that we do, or at least should, have hope. The scriptural, theological, and devotional language of hope has become so familiar that, rather than think about it, we allow it to wash over us like a warm, comforting bath. It is something we have absorbed almost by osmosis. Even those who profess no religious faith frequently use this language of hope without refection. They place their hope in Progress, or the Proletariat, or the judgment of History, rather than in God, but the language and idea of hope remains.
But for what should we hope? Or, more importantly, why should we hope at all? If hope, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines, is “to look forward [to something] with confidence of fulfillment,” then why should we engage in this act? After all, we look forward to all sorts of things only to be disappointed of their fulfillment. Indeed, for much of the human race, most of life has been occupied with facing the near certainty of disappointment, if not outright sorrow or misery. Even today, millions are enslaved, millions die of disease or hunger, and countless more die in ethnic, religious, or racial conflict. Why should one hope?
That near-certainty of disappointment and sorrow most definitely occupied the thought of pagan antiquity. This may surprise some readers. We tend to think of the pagan Greeks and Romans as libertines: unfettered by Christian moral strictures, enjoying a non-stop bacchanalia of eating, drinking, and sexual license. But this image is inaccurate, to say the least. A serious study of the literature and thought of pagan antiquity instead reveals a profound pessimism regarding human life and destiny. The Greeks and Romans had no idea of “progress,” “human development.” or “fulfillment” in the modern senses of those words. On the contrary, they saw human history and the lot of mankind as one of relentless decline and devolution.
From the “Works and Days” of Greece in the seventh century B.C. to the Stoic philosophers of Rome, their attitude towards life could be summed up as “our ancestors were better, and were better off, we are worse, and worse off, and our children will be worse still.” While the Greek and Latin languages had the word “hope,” (Greek: elpis, Latin: spes) those words didn’t connote what they do for us. Those words referred to concrete, temporal, and decidedly fleeting satisfactions. One could “hope” for the wealth that would alleviate some measure of life’s burdens, or for the pleasures of love, or for glory or power. But one could not hope for any transcendent or eternal happiness and fulfillment. While the ancients certainly had their bacchanals and episodes of licentiousness, even these were tinged with despair. St. Paul saw this clearly, and accurately described the ancient pagan approach to life in First Corinthians as “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Furthermore, the Greek and Roman view of human destiny was unrelieved by any idea of personal happiness in the afterlife. In the underworld of Hades, the realm of blessedness was Elysium. It was the province only of the gods and heroes. The vast majority of mankind was relegated to Asphodel, where, according to Homer’s Odyssey, the dead were “witless, without activity, without pleasure and without future.” And many readers will recall the mythological realm of Tartarus, where the wicked and those who angered the gods were subjected to an eternity of misery and torment.
So, when the Christian message infiltrated the pagan culture, it struck Greco-Roman antiquity as something radically different. It was really and truly “news.” Whether it was deemed “good” news or not depended on the outlook and openness of the hearer, but it was certainly something they weren’t accustomed to hearing from their own dominant culture. The newness and radicalism of the Christian message at least partially accounts for the hostility and derision that the Faith frequently encountered. It was an effrontery to the mindset and received worldview of its time.
It is this sense of the effrontery of hope that, I think, largely has been lost. The Christian stands before the world and says, “what you chase and strive for as “hope” is a counterfeit, a simulacrum. Like so much straw it will pass away. Put it aside and turn to the real hope. It is not a thing; it is not of this world at all. It is a Person, One born in a stable, who is the only true and real thing. He alone is hope.” This assertion is both an invitation and a challenge.
This sense of the effrontery of hope is reflected in the Church’s liturgical prayer of Advent and Christmas. The first Preface of Advent speaks of “the great promise in which now we dare to hope.” We “dare” to hope for the salvation of Christ; we are doing something radically new and different. We are not merely looking to manage or assuage the inevitable disappointment and pain of human existence. We are asserting that, in and through Christ, we are promised something more: true and eternal fulfillment, true and eternal peace, true and eternal joy.
We assert this hope with “the confidence of fulfillment.” In the Collect of the Christmas Vigil, we hear:
O God, who gladden us year by year
as we wait in hope for our redemption,
grant that, just as we joyfully welcome
your Only Begotten Son as our Redeemer,
we may also merit to face him confidently
when he comes again as our Judge.
Who lives and reigns…
This person who is our hope, who promises redemption, is someone in whom we can have confidence, even when facing him “as our Judge.” The Greeks and Romans were familiar with the idea of the judgment of the gods. But even when calling upon them, offering sacrifices and prayers to them, they had no idea of “confidence.” Indeed, it was customary when addressing prayers or offering oblations to the gods to turn away, to avert one’s face from the divinity. The idea of facing God “confidently” would have struck them as preposterous or even suicidal. But because God has become one of us in the incarnation, we can actually look upon his face; he has a face like ours.
I began by observing that the language of “hope,” borrowed from Christian usage, is still in the cultural air that we breathe. But one can have little doubt that, in our rapidly de-christianizing society, the word is losing the import that it once had. Hope has become a buzzword, a slogan, and the word is quickly being evacuated of meaning. Many cultural observers have commented on the growing signs of hopelessness in our culture. The “birth dearth” of the West is a symptom of the loss of hope. It turns out that people who no longer believe in God have no particular reason to believe that the world should go on. Thus, they tend not to have babies. The contraction of education to mere job training or ideological indoctrination is another symptom. Man is made for truth, but when he ceases to believe that there is a truth to strive for, any lesser striving is emptied of significance. The growing normalization of euthanasia is, perhaps, the most literal manifestation of despair. In some European countries one now can request euthanasia simply because of the ennui of life. A culture that increasingly looks to death as a solution to the problems of life is not a culture of hope.
The West is coming full circle, that is, returning to the hopelessness that beset the pagan Greeks and Romans. In some quarters of the Church, well-intentioned believers took the Second Vatican Council’s call to engage the modern world as a call to accommodate the world. Many have criticized this approach, and have pointed to its fruitlessness. Perhaps we might take a lesson from the early Church in her efforts to engage the hopeless society around her. Rather than accommodate, she proclaimed the reality that God has done something new, that God has done something that world did not expect.
We see around us today the signs that our society is sinking into the fundamental despair that plagued the ancients. Perhaps we too can proclaim, in this Christmas, the effrontery of a God who chose to save us by doing something different, which seemed to the world either an absurdity or an offense. There is a growing sense of unease with modernity, yet few still are willing to come out and say that modernity is itself the problem. We too might face the problem, and challenge the despair around us by proclaiming the effrontery of hope.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Virgin with Angels” painted by William-Adolph Bouguereau in 1900.