Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. The readings at Mass for the next few weeks, right up to Christmas, are all about the future and hope. This is fitting for the time of year – we remember our dead in November, the liturgical year of the Church year will end in three weeks, the calendar year is drawing to a close, the leaves are falling off the trees and the nights are getting longer. Therefore, it is a good time to consider what it is we hope for at a time when many things are ending.
The second reading today is precisely about hope. It is about the hope of the early Christians in the face of death where St Paul tells the Thessalonians: ‘We want you to be quite certain, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, to make sure that you do not grieve about them like the pagans who have no hope’. Notice please how St Paul does not ask us not to grieve for he knows full well that the loss of a loved one is painful. Rather he asks us to grieve but in hope and with hope.
Here we see a distinguishing mark of Christian faith - the fact that we have a future: death is not the end or what destroys everything, making life meaningless. It is not that we know the details of what awaits us, but our faith tells us that our lives will not end in emptiness or annihilation. And in the light of this hope that we have, we live differently.
Take for example the early Christians in Rome who were captured and condemned to death for not worshipping the Roman gods or the cult of the Emperor himself. As they marched to their deaths in places like Nero’s circus, they sang hymns of hope which baffled their Roman captors who were amazed by their lack of fear, such was their conviction in the truth of what St Paul says in his letter today: ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again and that it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus: God will bring them with him’.
Therefore we see in these first martyrs how their faith and hope for the future made them joyful and fearless in the present. We might ask the question, why does the Church harp on so much about hope in life after death? What about hope for justice and hope for a better world in this life? Again, we look to the early Church for an answer. After the resurrection, the first Christians believed that if God could raise someone from the dead then his power was unlimited and active in all aspects of life. Everything changed in the light of Easter. That is why St Paul spoke about death no longer having power over us (cf. Rom. 6:9) and prays: ‘Glory to him whose power working within us can infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine’ (Eph. 3:20). This was the spirit that the first Christians carried into every situation with hope and confidence – that every injustice or situation of evil was destined to end because of the resurrection.
Therefore, for us Christians, it means that because Jesus has conquered death, everything is possible. I think that we understand well the hope we have for life after death. Perhaps we do not grasp as well what hope means for life before death. So often our hopes in the face of troubles or sickness are for things to go back to how they were before or we hope to avoid suffering and trouble. But this is not real hope because nothing stays the same and suffering and death will undoubtedly come. Hope is not a vague optimism, a wish or a feeling.
Rather, real Christian hope is believing that despite what comes, the God who has the power to raise the dead will be present and active, inviting us to patiently trust, to grow in holiness and become the people he wants us to be. Real hope is not in things staying the same or avoiding trouble. It is the hope of Easter Sunday and the victory of Christ over sin, suffering and death that he shares with us so we can live in freedom and in joyful hope of a future in God.
And so friends, let us never abandon hope. Many studies are revealing that many of our problems stem from a lack of hope and despair. Yet, the only cure for hopelessness is hope itself. So, while we live through these moments of uncertainty and finite disappointment, let us never lose the infinite hope that comes with our faith. In this month of November and as the year comes to a close, may we look forward in the joyful hope to Advent whose light comes from the hope of Easter. This hope is not like a beautiful fleeting cloud in the sky. It is like the ground under our feet. It is stronger than everything, even death. On this Sunday, we celebrate hope and live in hope this week.