‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’, wrote the poet Alexander Pope. Where there’s life, there’s hope, we are told. Human beings survive enormous difficulties still ‘nursing the unconquerable hope’. Hope seems to be natural to the human being. Perhaps this is why we find suicide so shocking, that a human being would ever find themselves in such tragic hopelessness as to take his or her own life.
Its capacity for hope is the quality that makes the human species so adaptable and so successful at surviving. It is our ability to take the future into account in our decisions, to plan, to dream, to anticipate, to act confident of survival and success, and then to cope with failure if this is necessary.
This is something that marks the human being off from the rest of the natural world. We can relate to the future, take it into account in our decisions, decide what it is going to be like, and then act to bring about the plan or project.
Hope is central to both the Old Testament history of God’s dealing with Israel, and to the New Testament revelation of God in the teaching and example of Jesus;. What the Bible makes clear is that hope has to do with the human being’s relationship with time: the past, the present, the future. It has a special relationship to the future but hope also determines how we relate to the past and to the present.
Take the example of Moses’ experience of the presence of God in the first reading of this Sunday’s Mass. The God who appears to him in the burning bush identifies himself as the God of his ancestors, the God who was present with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who promised great things in the past and fulfilled those promises.
‘I am well aware of your sufferings’, God says to Moses, reassuring him that God has not abandoned his people, He is aware of their difficulties and is preparing to do something to help.
And so, God promises Moses, ‘I will deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians and bring them to a land where milk and honey flow’. Because of what God has done for his people in the past, because of his awareness of their difficulty in the present, Moses places his confidence in God’s promise for the future. This confidence, and the freedom it brings, is what is meant by hope.
The basis for this hope is that our God is who he is. He identifies himself to Moses as a God who is faithful to his promises. He is a God who has been with his people, who is with his people, and who will be with his people. This is the meaning of the personal name by which he identifies himself to Moses: ‘I am who I am’: I am the one who is present, and will be present, with his people.
God is patient, realising that for human beings things take time. Love takes time, forgiveness takes time, but God is patient with us. We must be patient with ourselves and with others, giving the ‘fig-tree’ another chance, another year, more time.
Some people feel that Christian hope in life after death can distract us from getting down to work now, in the present time. If my ‘insurance policy’ is for pie-in-the-sky-when-I-die, will this mean that I will undervalue my life in this world, my work on this earth, the pressing social and economic and political problems, which human beings have to face? If it does result in such detachment and undervaluing of the concerns of human beings then it is not Christian hope, but a caricature, or a very badly presented account, of Christian hope.
Hope is a quality of how I live now. Because a person’s trust and confidence in God is strong, he is free to involve himself totally in the tasks of this world, in building a kingdom of justice, love and peace here on earth. God is with us. He will be with us in the future. This is the basis for my hope for the future - and of my hope in the present.
The lives of the saints are a strong case in point. Those whose hope was strongest were precisely the ones who involved themselves most completely in living and working in this world. They did this through their involvement in education and health-care, in the responsibilities of family life, in preaching the Gospel, in ‘taking on’ authorities and governments, in fighting for justice, freedom and dignity, in pursuing the life of prayer. They involved themselves with that urgency and commitment that always characterises those who have been liberated by Christian hope.