By Emma Ineson
March 27, March, April 12, May 19, and June 21: these dates are emblazoned on my mind. Why? Because these are the dates that the U.K. government has given as a road map out of lockdown. On March 27 I might be able to meet my daughter in the garden. On April 12 I will possibly have my haircut. On May 17 perhaps I may have my parents visit for a night. On June 21 we could approach relative normality again, with the lifting of most restrictions except social distancing.
Might. Could. Perhaps. Possibly.
What happens if my hopes are not fulfilled? Dates have come and gone before. We’ve been under lockdowns one, two, and now three in England. How can I be sure my hopes won’t be dashed again? Proverbs 12:13 says “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” I believe we have all known a deep heartsickness over the past year. So how to keep alive, in these times of anticipation and trepidation, that most precious commodity: hope?
Being hopeful has been shown to be good for you. In a study published in November 2020 in the medical journal Global Epidemiology, researchers found that the more hopeful the participants, the more they reported higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of depression, a stronger sense of purpose and meaning, and less loneliness.
Some psychological theories of hope suggest that it has two key elements: will power and way power. Will power involves having the motivational belief that you can make a difference to your circumstances. Way power involves being resourceful enough to think of ways to achieve the changes you hope for. The theories say you need both. Will power without way power is wishful thinking. Way power without will power is simply being optimistic.
The COVID pandemic has tested all of us in the hopefulness scale. Those of us who would usually score quite high have found hope being built, fading, and having to be adjusted again and again and again. The trouble with the will power and way power theories of hope is that they depend quite a lot on our internal resources, a sense of resolve. It is up to us to feel hopeful. If we rely on our resources and experiences, these will be inevitably limited, and we are bound to let ourselves down.
One of the most poignant depictions of the heartsickness that accompanies a loss of hope comes in Luke 24, as two disciples, Cleopas and his companion, walking on the road to Emmaus, are telling a person whom they didn’t yet know to be Jesus about the events that had happened in Jerusalem in the preceding days: how they had seen the one they thought to be the messiah crucified.
“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they said. What a sad and hopeless phrase. We had hoped. Not even we do hope, or we will hope, but we had hoped. And now that hope appears to be gone.
We had hoped that Coronavirus deaths would not be so high.
We had hoped not to feel lonely and isolated.
We had hoped we might be able to hug our friends and families.
We had hoped to gather in person to share the Eucharist.
When they began to tell him their grief and disappointments, Jesus didn’t respond by saying: “Can I just stop you there, because you’ve got it all wrong, because actually I am Jesus, and I’m alive so it’s all okay.”
No, he walked with them, he listened, and he let them pour out their honest heartsickness, before gently leading them to greater understanding. Even while they didn’t recognize him, he was there with them, walking, explaining, listening, staying. It was only over dinner that night, sometime later as they broke bread together, that their eyes were opened to the reality of hope.
Christian hope is not the same as incessant cheerfulness or even optimism. Christian hope is not reliant on flawed human feelings. The answer to the disciples on the Emmaus road was not found in their will power or way power, because they were pretty powerless in both respects. Their hope came in the form of a person: Jesus, risen from the dead, and made known to them in the broken bread.
The New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has said: “Optimism cannot deal with death, but God has dealt with it.” We have hope because we worship a God who, in Jesus, knows what it is to suffer, even to suffer death itself, and yet was raised to life. That’s the hope that we celebrate on Easter morning.
So if we’re talking about having hope in the midst of global pandemic, it’s not just an optimism that things will get better (which they will), but it’s hope in a God who has been to the worst possible place and back again, and goes ahead of us into whatever the future holds. After the eyes of the disciples were opened and they recognized Jesus, they got up and returned to Jerusalem to tell their friends what had happened. It’s like a hope switch went on for them they began to look forward again to the future, uncertain though that was.
And the difference? A risen Jesus.
Peter writes this:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Pet. 1:3-7)
What hope is alive in you because of Jesus right now?
Hope that the church might emerge from this simpler but stronger.
Hope for God’s restoration and healing.
Hope for someone you know in their personal circumstances.
Perhaps the ultimate hope of life after death.
This Easter, let us celebrate our living hope — so much more than will power or way power — that is not affected by the various trials we might currently be experiencing but is, in fact, refined by them, like gold in a fire.
The Rt Rev. Dr. Emma Ineson is Bishop of Penrith within the Church of England’s Diocese of Carlisle.