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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Christian Hope: A Great Calling and Difficult Project

Walking through the neighborhood, a new friendliness is peeking out. This is a sign of the Risen Lord at work in the world. The springtime flowers and new life seem to augment a certain newness in the eyes of my neighbors. They may not know Him or what He is accomplishing, yet His presence has begun its victory in them already. Young people in particular express a certain jubilance—signs that a certain fear and anxiety is passing, that whatever it is we need to live with, we will have to accept and move on. This is not to diminish the real threat of the pandemic that is still unfolding. It is just that the Lord of Life and Victor over sin and death has authority over every pandemic—and nothing can stop His power. The fear and suspicion, the anxiety and gloom that threatened Easter just a short time ago are clearing and the friendliness that we ought to share cannot be held back. We cannot say that this is due to the media. Most every source has been irresponsible and reckless. Why should we think it would ever be any different? Everything was super hyped up before the pandemic and so it continues now. A responsible consumer of such media products will ask from time to time, all this hype that I am being fed, is it lifting up my dignity or crushing it?

The culturally powerful know that we love to make villains out of those with whom we disagree. We have learned that the media is ever ready to indulge this desire in every way it possibly can. We love to sensationalize tragedy and loss, especially when doing so commands attention, and they have not failed to capitalize on this particular inclination either. Yet, besides indulging our less noble appetites, the culturally powerful have also used these outlets to control our behavior. For them it is about an orderly society—and while societal order is a good thing, they have set it up as an absolute because, throughout history, the powerful have always sought an absolute control. Without fear of God, one is afraid of everything and so needs to control it. As Augustine observed about the Roman Empire, "the only joy that they attained as the fragile brilliance of crystal, a joy far outweighed by the fear that it would be shattered in an instant."

This is not to say that reasonable stories and opinions do not also get expressed. On occasion we hear an opinion that rises above the vilifying and fear mongering we are fed. As if starved prisoners, we hold out our hands for more. Quickly come the guards. Such opinions we are told are unscientific and dangerous and so forth and so on. Whoever proffers them is instantly impugned by organizations and experts - no reprieve from our diet of despair. No, we are told, we need balance. Any sign of hope is dangerous point out (as if frightening people out of their livelihoods and into abject poverty was balanced and thoughtful).

Then there is the issue of the suppression of our religious freedom. Here in California, we are told that it will be months or longer before we will be able to gather for worship again. Commercial exchanges are okay and necessary, so we are told. Yet spiritual exchanges, these are too risky and, we are told, not really essential. This belies a vision of humanity that only sees consumers and producers, and does not see end points in eternity who do not admit of being used as a means to an end, and to whom the only proper value response is love.

Nothing offers the hope that God offers humanity, yet our culturally powerful fearfully limit this "dangerous" activity. The bold preaching of Peter and the Apostles is silenced in the public square and limited to virtual formats. Our priests and bishops cry out of virtual prisons, unable to be physically present to their sheep at a time when shepherds are most needed. Helpful as a live-streamed mass may be during a time of crisis, such worship do not fully speak into the anxiety or loneliness that threatens human dignity today. So, as happened during other times of persecution (yes, when Caesar tells you not to worship in public, no matter how well intentioned, that is persecution!), those who do gather, gather in secret - even if around a flickering screen somewhere in their own homes.

Yet, even among Christians, there are those who are afraid of the Good News. There are even voices that angrily denounce their brothers and sisters—shame on you for daring to think beyond this cage of fear in which we are shut. They shun their own fellow disciples and admonish them not to dare to dream or speak of hope for oneself or for the poor. Instead, we need to fit in and be good citizens who render unto Caesar what is Caesars, and if Caesars commands that you do not render to God what is his, then be obedient—for the politicians, experts and media experts are now our high priests, our malls, airports and universities our cathedrals, and the rich, powerful and famous our gods. Yet, we are made for more than producing and consuming things. It is not worthy of our dignity to be manipulated into some grand social scheme. It is a myth to believe that anyone can long be happy in a society that withdraws in fear and contents itself on meeting merely material needs. It is precisely against this tyranny that Christ, the Son of the Living God suffered and died for us - and only He, the Risen Lord, can free us from death and fear of death.

Created in the image and likeness of God, we have a great calling and with this calling, a difficult project. Made to reflect what is beyond ourselves, no one is an ordinary person but each one of us is capable of self-contradiction. Magnificence can suddenly unveil itself in the most surprising ways. So can mediocrity. A pandemic and shelter-in-place orders do not change this fundamental human reality. Each day, a new battle begins for our integrity. What we disclose or fail to disclose, what we hand over or what we hold back, the judgments we entertain in our hearts and our ability to attend to the heart of another, to allow their judgments to help us question our own - in each situation, we either betray the truth about ourselves or else confirm it. This truth is no easy matter. It involves our weaknesses, voids, inadequacies and failures—all of this for sure. And this, we would be foolish not to take stock of. Yet, if we stop here, we are only at the surface of a great mystery. For an even deeper truth—indeed, the deepest truth of all—is that we are loved by God who has chosen to implicate Himself in our plight. Whatever it is that we must face, we do not face it alone. For He is with us to the end.

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