Sunday, April 06, 2008

‘Hope’ and ‘Hopes’

On the road to Emmaus

(Third Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 6, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 24: 13-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Easter 2008]

“Hope” and “hopes”. On paper, those two words are almost exactly the same; in fact, only one little letter distinguishes them. But, theologically speaking, those two words—hope and hopes—mean very different things.

For example:

  • It’s possible for a person to have many hopes, but no hope—at the same time! Most atheists and agnostics probably fall into this category. Genuine hope is impossible for them, but they can certainly have as many hopes as the rest of us.
  • It’s also possible for a person to have a lot of hope, and at the same time very few—if any—hopes. When my mother was on her deathbed back in 1990, she certainly fit into this category—as have many faithful believers over the years.
  • You can have lots of hopes, and still despair; but if you have the virtue of hope planted firmly in your heart, you will never despair, even if all your hopes are dashed in a single instant!

Are you confused yet?

No need to be, because the difference is really quite simple. “Hopes” refer to our aspirations: they’re the desires we hold in our hearts; and they concern the things that we need—or want—in this life:

“I hope to get accepted at the college I’ve always wanted to attend.”

“I hope to get a good job soon.”

“I hope to get married and have a family someday.”

“I hope to get a big refund on my taxes this year—so I can take a nice trip this summer AND give a big donation to Fr. Ray for St. Pius X Church!”

I can only hope!

Those are just a few examples of some common “hopes”. You could all give me many others, I’m sure. The possibilities are almost endless.

But that’s not what we mean when we speak of the theological virtue of hope! Hopes relate to the things of this world; the virtue of hope, on the other hand, points us toward heaven, the ultimate goal of human existence! Hope, in this sense, is rooted in faith (that’s why I said in my Easter homily that your hope is only as strong as your faith is!). The Catechism sums it up beautifully when it says: “Hope 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.” (CCC, 1817)

In today’s Gospel story from Luke 24, two disciples meet the risen Jesus as they’re walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on Easter Sunday—although they initially don’t recognize our Lord. These disciples are clearly upset, and confused—and very depressed! In fact at one point St. Luke explicitly says, “They stopped, looking downcast.”

Then our Lord begins to question them about the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. In the course of their response, they say to him, sadly, “We were hoping that [this Jesus] would be the one to redeem Israel.”

“We were hoping”.

Clearly these men had a hope with regard to Jesus. But the real question is, did they have the theological virtue of hope in their hearts?

I would say No they did not—at least not at this point. And that’s one reason why they were so depressed!

You see, most Jews in the first century expected the Messiah to be a great earthly ruler like King David, a ruler who would get rid of the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to its former greatness. Well apparently that’s also what these two disciples thought. They were looking to be redeemed from Roman domination, not from sin and eternal death! And so one of their “hopes” for Jesus was that he would become a popular revolutionary leader: a leader who would bring the Jewish people together and lead a successful revolt against the evil Roman Empire.

Well, obviously, that misguided hope was totally and utterly destroyed when our Lord was nailed to the cross on Good Friday.

No wonder they were so upset!

But, thankfully, Jesus made sure that this false hope was replaced in these two disciples by something much greater and much more important, namely the Christian virtue of hope.

Jesus starts off by helping these men to understand that true redemption—redemption from sin—has in fact taken place through the Messiah’s suffering and death—and that this death was actually the Messiah’s path to eternal life. He says to them at one point, “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter his glory?”

And when they finally recognize him at table and realize that he’s alive, they begin to understand that his resurrection means something wonderful FOR THEM—PERSONALLY—and for all the other faithful followers of Jesus, present and future.

And that’s when they begin to have hope—true, Christian hope—as well as the joy that comes from that hope.

The things I said at the beginning of my homily should now make perfect sense to you. I said that it’s possible for a person to have many hopes, but no hope—at the same time! In other words, a person can have many earthly aspirations and goals, but if his ultimate focus is not on Jesus Christ and the kingdom of heaven, then his life will be without the hope that comes from faith in Jesus.

I also said that it’s possible for a person to have a lot of hope, and at the same time very few—if any—hopes. When my mother was on her deathbed in 1990 she knew she was dying and she accepted that fact, so she didn’t have any more earthly aspirations and desires. But she did have hope—the hope of living forever with Jesus, whom she always called her “best friend.”

In preparing this homily I also thought of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. Way back in the 4th century Monica prayed very hard for her son to give up his wild ways and become a Christian. Finally, after many years, he did. Listen, now, to how Augustine described a conversation he had with his mother shortly before she died:

The day was now approaching when my mother Monica would depart from this life . . . The two of us, all alone, were enjoying a very pleasant conversation, forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead. We were asking one another in the presence of the Truth—for you are the Truth—what it would be like to share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, which has not even entered into the heart of man. We desired with all our hearts to drink from the streams of your heavenly fountain, the fountain of life.

That was the substance of our talk, though not the exact words. But you know O Lord, that in the course of our conversation that day, the world and its pleasures lost all their attraction for us. My mother said: “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to be his servant. So what am I doing here?”

At the end of her life, St. Monica apparently had no hopes whatsoever—but she had a superabundance of hope!

You can have lots of hopes, and still despair (as I said at the beginning); but if you have the virtue of hope planted firmly in your heart—like St. Monica and my mother both did—then you will never despair, even if all your hopes are in the past, or even if all your hopes are dashed in a single instant.

Having hopes is good; having hopes is very good; but having hope is much, much better.

Dear Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit, fill us with hope—now and always. Amen.