What is Hope?

An Advent reflection on the search for hope amidst times of crisis.

By Zoe Matties, Manitoba Program Manager 

Dec 5, 2022

How do you react when you hear bad news? A spectrum of response is common; from anger, dread, or anxiety, to denial, grief, and even apathy. Experiencing these emotional responses to the bad news we hear around us, isn’t abnormal. In fact, it is a reasonable human response to very real and existential threats facing our world.

Given these very real threats, it is not surprising that I’m often asked the question, “where do you find hope?” It’s a relevant question for the advent season, but here are some curiosities that pop into my mind when I hear it. First of all, what is hope? Is it a thing that can be found? Is it a “thing”? Can I possess hope? What if hope isn’t something that can be found or owned?

The theologian Norman Wirzba says,

“What if hope isn’t really, or at least, not fundamentally, a thing to possess? What if hope is instead a self-involving way of being that is animated by an affirmation of the goodness of this life? Or a practiced way of life, rooted in the conviction that this life is beautiful and worth cherishing, defending, and celebrating?”

The season of Advent helps to remind me that hope is an ancient Christian virtue that must be practiced in our lives in order to be found. Here are a few of the ingredients that make up the practice of hope:

1.Hope has a clear view of the present reality.

Photo of Night Sky and milky way

Photo by Tim Cruickshank

During Advent we often hear scripture passages reflecting on darkness and the end of the world. In Luke 21, for example, Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (v. 25-26, CEB). Why would Jesus be speaking in this way? Scholars call this type of language “apocalyptic”. Apocalypse is a Greek word that means unveiling. This kind of writing emerged from places of catastrophe, such as when the people of Israel were taken into captivity in Babylon. Apocalyptic literature exposes the realities of violence, injustice and sin.

But, it also points the reader towards something beyond the present darkness. Jesus continues, Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near” (v 27-28). Jesus was pointing towards the ultimate source of hope: the incarnate God, and God’s vision for the future, which is one of redemption, and not destruction.

When looking at apocalyptic scriptures we learn that hope is not oblivious to the pain of the world. Hope tells the truth about the crisis we are in, but also offers an alternative to that crisis.

2. Hope is grounded in God’s story and the story of God’s people.

The Catholic Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, writes, “I can only answer the question, ‘what am I to do?’ if I answer the prior question, ‘of what story or stories am I a part?’ As Christians, we belong to the story of God’s people, and we are called in a particular way to be God’s “ministers of reconciliation” as it says in 2 Corinthians.

The German theologian Dorothee Soelle, writes about the classic text in Romans 4 where Paul discusses Abraham as the father of the nations. Romans 4:18 says of Abraham that “in hope he believed against hope”. When it seemed that all hope was lost, Abraham believed in God and held on to God’s promises. Soelle says that “hope is life’s response to life’s call….Hope against hope means transcendence of the given.” Which means that hope is not dependent on what one person can accomplish, or even what the outcomes of our actions may be. Hope is our response to God’s call and God’s redeeming action in the world. What will our role be in the story of God?

4 People measuring the height of a river bank

Photo by Walker Giesbrecht

3. Hope requires a posture of holding the future with open hands.

News of the climate and biodiversity crises can sometimes move us into places of despair. But to despair is to believe that you know what future holds with certainty. Hope, on the other hand, recognizes that we don’t actually know what the future will hold, and within that place of uncertainty there is room to act. To hope is to trust that there is good and beauty in this world, despite the pain and destruction that we see. To hope is to take action, despite not knowing what the future may hold.

I have found that as I open myself up to experience and acknowledge the pain and suffering of others, both human and more-than-human, I have become more able, like compost, to transform that death and decay into life-giving soil, and hopeful action that can lead to the flourishing of all creation. We do not owe the people of the future accurate predictions about what will happen. But we do owe them our work to create a better world here and now. We may not see the results of this work today, or even next year, but hope assumes change happens in slow and unexpected ways, like a small baby, born in a barn, destined to become the Prince of Peace.

Featured photo: Claudio Swartz on Unsplash

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