There is a satirical newspaper called The Onion – perhaps you have heard of it – actually I don’t know if it still exists or not. But it was an early pioneer in what is called fake news – although presumably everyone who read it knew that the news was fake. Anyway, my favorite Onion headline is: “Man who thought he had lost all hope loses last little bit of it he didn’t even know he had.” Of course, it is not meant to be taken seriously. It is absurd humor because, besides not really making sense, it also implies that hope is like a commodity that can be measured, which of course it is not. Hope is frequently misunderstood, and not just in satirical newspapers.
Being Christian means living in hope. No matter how bad everything around us may appear, we still have a reason to hope. That is what our faith teaches us. If we believe that Jesus Christ died for us and rose from the dead so that we might have life, then – if we truly believe this – no matter how bad things get, we always have a reason to hope.
So this leads us to a common misunderstanding of what hope is. Hope should not be confused with optimism. Optimism is like a cheerful disposition that everything is going to work out. It’s a way of looking at the world and expecting the best even when circumstances don’t suggest it. The optimist’s response to a miserable, rainy day is, “This is great! Now the plants are all going to grow, etc.” It is in contrast to pessimism, which is a gloomy way of looking at life. No matter how great everything may be, the pessimist always perceives the dark cloud on the horizon. The pessimist’s response to a beautiful, sunny day is, “We’re going to pay for this.”
It might be pretty easy to see how being a hard-core pessimist is not really compatible with Christian hope. But optimism, as I said, is not the same as Christian hope either. It may be a relatively harmless, and even pleasant, way of looking at the world, but it is still lacking. Where both pessimism and optimism fall short is when they fail to see things as they really are. So besides them, there is a third option – realism. Realism is, as it’s very name suggests, seeing things as they really are. When a situation is really, really bad, the realist doesn’t try to cheerfully explain it away and pretend everything’s fine, as would the optimist. Nor does he wallow in misery, as would the pessimist, almost enjoying the fact that now everyone is going to at last be miserable, as he had been predicting all along. Instead, the realist acknowledges good and bad situations alike, recognizing them for what they are.
Of the three possibilities – optimism, pessimism, and realism – realism is the one most compatible with Christian hope. That’s because hope includes seeing things as they really are – not ignoring the good or the bad in any given situation. However, hope doesn’t mean passively accepting whatever comes along; when confronted with evil, for example, we need to recognize it and then ask God for the grace to deal with it in the proper way. Even when faced with the worst that life or the world can throw at us, if we have hope we believe that ultimately God, and not evil, will triumph. And nor is Christian hope thinking that nothing bad will ever happen to me. This is simply not realistic. If we have hope, we can acknowledge the reality of suffering and death, and not be overwhelmed by them.
With Christian hope, we do not ignore death and mortality, even our own; rather, we believe that because Christ has redeemed us, death will not be the end of us. With hope, we can recognize the evil in the world around us and not give in to despair, because we know that ultimately evil will not triumph. Maybe in our own short lifetimes – which are really just a brief moment in the broad expense of human history – it will appear that evil has triumphed or gotten the upper hand, but we know that in the end, God will conquer evil once and for all. If we have hope, we believe that God never abandons us, but rather that he accompanies us through every moment of our lives – both the moments of happiness and the moments of sorrow; the times of light and the times of darkness. God is always there.
In our second reading today, St. Peter exhorts the Christian community to whom he is writing, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” St. Peter wrote this letter to a community that was experiencing persecution for their faith in Christ. The whole letter is written in this context. He writes to encourage them, to strengthen them in their faith and in their witness to Christ in the face of this persecution. So the implication is that, even in the midst of this persecution, they as Christians have a reason to hope. And another implication is that their hope should be evident to others.
We are living in a world that is very much lacking in hope. And while I can’t speak for the whole world, from my own travels to various countries, both rich and poor, it seems that the countries that are most lacking in hope are not the poorest but rather the richest, our country included. Remember I am not talking about optimism, nor pessimism for that matter. As an example, a few summers ago I visited Haiti for about a week. This is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The degree of poverty and squalor is shocking. The infrastructure is pretty appalling. Yet nobody seemed to be sitting around listlessly. People were constantly on the move, struggling to get ahead. Everybody was working, selling, moving. The streets were filled with life and activity. All of this activity suggests hope. Opportunities in Haiti are very limited; even if you work extremely hard, there’s a very good chance you’re not going to be able to escape from poverty. But in spite of this, I did not get the impression that people in general were giving up.
In contrast to this, there seem to be so many people in this country who do not have hope. The lack of hope is reflected in addictive behaviors, in the epidemic of drug abuse gripping so many sectors of our society, in high rates of depression, in the numbers of suicides which continue to rise, in broken families, in domestic abuse, in the loneliness so many people feel. Unlike in Haiti, opportunities still abound in this country – or at least they did; we’ll see what happens next. Most people here have comforts that the average Haitian could only dream of. But so many people here no longer really aspire to anything. They see no solutions to their problems and have just given up. The numbers of working age adults in this country who are neither working nor in school is staggering. I do not say this to judge anyone; I say this because this is the reality. And this was the case even before this pandemic and the government lockdowns, which have led to more than 36 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last two months.
But as Christians, we do have a reason to hope, and it is found in the person of Jesus Christ. And our hope should be reflected in how we live. It should be apparent to others. That doesn’t mean we should walk around with fake smiles plastered on our faces. No, hope is not a self-conscious attempt to make other people think we are hopeful. Rather, it is characterized by the whole way we live our lives. It is a subtle and yet more compelling witness to others.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The reason for our hope is because Jesus loves us. And he asks us to love Him in return. And we express that love not just with words but more importantly with our actions. We express our love for God by keeping his commandments – all of them – not just the ones we like or find it easiest to follow. And the most fundamental commandment Jesus gives us is to love. From this commandment come all the others. When we seek to love God above all else, and when we really seek to love others, this love will transform us and how we live our lives. We will become people who live in hope. And this hope will be evident to others. This is the greatest way to evangelize, to lead others to Christ.
Jesus Christ has died for us and risen from the dead. He has promised us eternal life if we have faith in Him and keep his commandments. This should give us hope, a hope which nothing can take away.