Hope Works

Over the next couple weeks I’d like to provide our readers with some bite-sized insights from Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical Spe Salvi, on the virtue of hope. The approach I’m going to take is to focus on a few biblical passages that help form the basis of the Pope’s discussion.

Today we will examine Ephesians 2:12, where St. Paul reminds the Christian community in Ephesus that before they encountered Christ, they were “without hope and without God in the world.”

Rather than focus on the futility and hopelessness of living without Christ, I want to briefly examine, through the eyes of the Holy Father, what it truly means to be “with hope” and “with God in the world.”

Pope Benedict emphasizes that our baptismal faith is not merely informative, as though it were mere historical and theological data. Rather, our faith is performative, which means that it makes things happen, that it changes us on the inside. In other words, it “works.”

Because our faith works, we have God with us, and we have hope–a dynamic reality in the present that orients us to the purpose and end of our existence.

In my own reflections, it occurs to me that one can almost say, in an analogous sense, that faith is the sacrament of hope. Let me explain.

Our hope is based on our external acceptance of Christ and membership in the visible Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church. We might say more simply, but correctly, that our hope is based on the fact that we’re “baptized Catholics.”

Even non-Catholic Christians would say that their hope is based on their acceptance of Jesus Christ, on being “saved” or “born again”–an interior movement of grace to be sure, but manifested externally by an act of faith, such as coming forward during an “altar call.”

Anyway, as “Christians” and as “Catholics” we bear the external “sign” of Christ’s presence in our lives. We are, again, baptized Catholics in visible unity with the Church, and through our faith we know that if we persevere in our faith to the end we will be with the Lord when we die. That’s true, but that’s largely informative, and not performative, to use the Pope’s language.

Underlying the gift of faith is Christ’s work within us through the power of the Holy Spirit. This work is relational, medicinal, and indeed life-changing. We have different words for this. We might call it “invisible unity with the Church,” ”state of grace,” “sanctifying grace,” “justification” and “sanctification” (without getting into the theological nuances of these terms), and “life in the Spirit,” among other expressions. The point of all of them is to say that now through our faith in Jesus Christ, we are no longer “without hope and without God in the world. ”

I think this reality is best expressed by St. Paul: “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5).

Tomorrow I will continue to reflect on Ephesians 2:12 and Pope Benedict’s image of Christ as the philosopher-shepherd.

For the complete text of Spe Salviclick here.

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