Hope as a Prophetic Act
Hope is an important spiritual and theological motive in the Christian faith. It is not wishing or optimism: To the prophets, the martyrs, the saints and indeed to all Christians, hope is a prophetic act, profoundly inspired and led by the Spirit of God. Hope gives us agency to participate in God’s grace. Interestingly, the word does not occur in the Gospels except once in Luke—and not at all in the Book of Revelation, the one place we would expect to find it. In the Hebrew Scripture, it occurs neither in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) nor in Isaiah, where we’d expect to see a lot of it. Yet the hope of God’s kingdom on earth is the vision and the driving energy of the Gospels and of the Book of Revelation, and the hope of God’s redemption of Israel is the vision of the Torah and of the prophet Isaiah. Explicitly or implicitly, the whole Bible is a book of hope in God’s redemptive grace and love.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) The writer of Hebrews recognizes a dynamic relationship between faith and hope: It makes little sense to have faith in something we have no hope of gaining or hope for things we have no faith in obtaining. Hope must be grounded in present reality and circumstance—and for hope to be meaningful, that reality must be named truthfully.
The Bible prophets do exactly that and pay the price: they were real prophets because they spoke the truth of injustice and oppression of the poor and the marginalized, and of the immoral and misguided decisions of kings. The prophets also always proclaimed the prophecy of hope as well as doom. It is the combination of truth and hope that makes true prophecy in the Bible.
In his book, Reality, Grief, Hope, Walter Brueggemann talks about these three as the urgent prophetic tasks as he gives particular attention to Jeremiah, Lamentations and 2 Isaiah. This is similar to the paradigm of orientation-disorientation-new orientation he lays out in his earlier study on Psalms. This is the spiritual journey we often take at moments of crisis in our lives: Having faced painful reality truthfully, we must go through a process of grief and gratitude before we can articulate hope. I add gratitude here because that is what often catalyzes the shift from grief to hope—which is not a denial of reality but a change in perspective: I have found much grace in people living in poverty and on the margins who have found hope by counting their blessings and giving thanks, even for the little that they have. Gratitude leads to generosity of spirit which, in turn, leads to hope for a new possibility and a new reality.
Addressing the Vatican Diplomatic Corps in January 2021, Pope Francis said, “the world is seriously ill not only as a result of the virus but also in its natural environment, its economic and political processes, and even more in its human relationships.” Pope Francis was recognizing that interconnectedness and interdependence are essential to our very survival, and that the brokenness of human relations is our deepest ill. If Jesus Christ means anything in this season of Christmas, it must be about the healing and repairing of broken humanity to wholeness in the love of God, for which Jesus offered his life on the Cross. The healing of the broken human relations is the hope we need more than ever.