You are surely aware by now of the Pope’s latest encyclical, “Saved by Hope.” I won’t offer a detailed commentary here, or even a general overview; I’d just like to look at a point or two that I found helpful, though of course the whole thing is well worth reading and reflecting upon.
One of the points repeated in the encyclical is this: “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing.” The hope that we are called to is the hope that the Gospel holds out to us: eternal life is offered to us through faith in Jesus Christ, and this hope for eternal life is what sustains us through all the hardships and trials of this present life. But if we are without God we are essentially without hope; this is another point to which Pope Benedict repeatedly returns.
Hope in God, in order to be life-changing, must be real and open to personal experience in the here and now. Hope for eternal life that is founded on faith in Christ is not merely something projected into the distant or obscure future, and hence something that we can persuade ourselves to postpone until we are old and have nothing else to do. It is a present and dynamic reality in our daily lives—and must be so if we are to live in such a way as to ultimately realize our hope for everlasting happiness.
The Pope does a little biblical exegesis on a point that I remember from my Greek studies in the seminary nearly 20 years ago. It is a key phrase on faith in the Letter to the Hebrews: chapter 11, verse 1. It is often (but inaccurately) translated: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That sounds pretty good, and it is not false in itself, but it is not what the Scripture actually says. This translation places faith in subjective terms (assurance, conviction), an interior attitude, while the original text places it in objective terms, an actual reality, so that it should read: “Faith is the substance [hypostasis] of things hoped for, the proof [elenchos] of things not seen.”
You might wonder what the point is. I’ll let the Pope, relying somewhat on St Thomas Aquinas, explain: “Faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us, and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of ‘substance’ is therefore modified in the sense that through faith… there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty… because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence… Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’ The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality…”
So even though what we hope for is not manifestly or fully realized, faith gives us a real, objective “connection” to or communion with it. This is why it is something real and dynamic, and why hope is not the same thing as a mere wish (and why faith is not merely “blind”). St Paul says that we are given the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee” (Eph. 1:13-14), and it is through the Spirit that the objective reality of what is not seen is secretly (though not yet fully) communicated to those who believe. Perhaps the most tangible connection by faith and hope to the life of the world to come is the Holy Eucharist, the most “objective” kind of communion we can enjoy with the Lord in this life, though this point is not developed in the encyclical.
The Pope describes various ways or “settings” in which we can nurture hope in our daily lives. He also gives considerable space to contrasting true Christian hope with various false or inadequate hopes—those based on science or political ideologies or social agendas. All of these make promises but none of them delivers—and their very inadequacy sometimes turns them into something quite alien to their original optimistic projections. As a kind of summary paragraph, I quote the following:
“We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain… God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life…”
I haven’t even scratched the surface in this post. Read it all for yourself here. It’s worth it. Let us wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.