Hope seems to be in short supply. Hope trusts in a better future. Right now, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes it difficult for us to see what the future will look like. Grant Tungay SJ reflects how Lent can be a good time to cultivate a deeper trust in God’s promise of a better future.
What does it mean to hope during this time of Lent? In one of his first major interviews after his election in 2013, Pope Francis spoke to Antonio Spadaro (editor of the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica in Rome) about hope. Pope Francis stressed that Christian hope is real – it is not illusory and does not deceive us. Moreover, he added that Christian hope cannot be reduced to mere human optimism. God has made promises to us, and Pope Francis wants us to trust that God will not mislead us when he invites us to hope in the future.
However, many may feel these days that hope hard to come by. Human optimism is about all that we can hang onto. Tired of lockdowns and endless political wrangling – the world over – about the best way to respond to the crisis, people cling to even the smallest glimmer of human optimism.
Our country is getting the vaccines? Great! When do we get them? New COVID-19 infections are dropping and there are signs that the lockdowns are working. Great! When can the lockdown ease and when can life return to normal? These ‘human lights’ at the end of a dark tunnel can lift our spirits a bit, knowing that the struggles we are experiencing will not last forever – this too shall pass.
One shouldn’t be too dismissive of these ‘human lights’ and their power to sustain us in difficult times. For the influential protestant theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, the resurrection of Christ shows us that human suffering will be eliminated. Of course, Moltmann understands that the ultimate ending to human suffering will come when the Kingdom of God is made complete at the end of time. But he argues that human beings can work towards the elimination of suffering in the here and now, and this can be a source of hope for our world. Thus for him, Christian hope calls us to work towards a better life for all.
From this perspective, human optimism should not be discounted as a crutch for getting over bad periods. For us, caught up in the pandemic, we should hang onto our daily doses of good news that signal an end to our present struggles. Moltmann’s argument makes us active agents in reducing human suffering. We should, therefore, do everything we can to bring about the end to this pandemic: like wearing masks and getting vaccine shots.
In the light of these reflections, Lent is a time of preparation. It is preparing us for the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, which is a magnificent gift from God that invites us to hope for the end of suffering. But it is also a time of active preparation, where we can work towards the transformation of the world and of our individual lives.
I don’t think Pope Francis would disagree with Moltmann about the necessity for us to do all we can to end our present suffering. I also don’t think that Pope Francis is dismissive of the value of human optimism. However, I do think that his words in his 2013 interview could be challenging Moltmann to go deeper. For Pope Francis, Christian hope is not merely about human optimism or our ability to transform the world – while waiting for the final curtain to be drawn on the human drama.
God has made us promises which, Pope Francis insists, he intends to keep. Christian hope is about trusting that God will deliver. The world will be renewed and that God is at work transforming it in ways we cannot see or yet understand.
Pursuing these thoughts by Pope Francis, Lent is a time not merely of active preparation for a better life and a better world. It is a time for the Church to turn to God, like a child turning towards a loving parent, and to give him our patient trust. It is a time to realise that God’s vision for the world is not simply a world without COVID-19, where we are free to socialise with friends and family, and to continue our lives as they were before the pandemic.
God’s vision is more universal than that. He wants the world to be totally transformed by the resurrection of Christ in a way that is yet to be revealed. Lent is a time to realise that this transformation is at work, and that we can play a part in it. It is therefore a graced time where the Church, and each one of us, can ask ourselves the question: how is God working out the transfiguration of the world in our communities and in our individual lives, and how are we working with him?
The answer to this question will give us all the reasons we need as Christians to hope in the future.