An Insight on Hope from St. Augustine

The word “hope” in modern English has lost much of the vigor assigned to what we call the theological virtue of Hope. In English hope often means merely a vague wish, as in, “I hope it doesn’t rain.” But the theological virtue of Hope (which I capitalize to distinguish it from worldly hope) is more vigorously defined as the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal salvation. Notice therefore it is no mere wish, it is a confident expectation based on God’s promises and love for us.

A reading from St. Augustine in the Breviary this week is rather well known and summons us to humility about our sins. But I want to briefly consider a subtlety in the text regarding hope. St. Augustine writes:

Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others. This was not the way that David showed us how to pray and make amends to God, when he said: I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. He did not concentrate on others’ sins; he turned his thoughts on himself. He did not merely stroke the surface, but he plunged inside and went deep down within himself. He did not spare himself, and therefore was not impudent (rude) in asking to be spared. (Serm. 19,2-3: CCL 41, 252-254)

Notice how he says, “But men are hopeless creatures…” Clearly, he speaks in a general sort of way, for not all people are hopeless. But consider his insight here in terms of how we defined Hope above. Too many people do not have a confident expectation of God’s help in attaining unto salvation and the holiness that precedes it. And hence, we tend to settle into a mediocrity at best and despair at worst. Thus, having little sense we can be free from our sins, especially our more serious ones, we seek to avoid thinking of them. This of course leads to the other behaviors St. Augustine describes above such as being more interested in the sins of others than our own, becoming the critic and so forth. We belittle others as a strange way of feeling better about ourselves.  We think, “At least I’m not as bad as so-and-so!” But we forget that being better than so-and-so is not the standard, being like Jesus is the standard. And this is why we need a lot of humility and Hope.

Consider then the role of Hope. If I have a vigorous and confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation then I can humbly admit that I am a sinner and turn to him for help; I can confidently engage the battle against sin. And this Hope prevails even if one perceives that the battle to overcome some very habitual sins may be a lengthy battle marked with setbacks, for Hope summons us to engage the battle with confidence of God’s help and love. In this way Hope interacts with fortitude. Fortitude is more than courage, it is the virtue whereby one is persevering despite obstacles, opposition and setbacks.

Therefore, note the subtlety in St. Augustine’s description of the gossipy and hypercritical world of hopeless people.  He teaches us of the great need for the vigorous and confident expectation of God’s help that we call Hope.   Hope (and humility) help us to stay in our own lane and work our own stuff and will not disappoint if we persevere in the battle for holiness.

The Word of the Lord Remains Forever! A Homily for the 33rd Sunday of the Year

Jerusalem and the Temple, J. Tissot (1894)

As winter approaches and the end of the liturgical year draws near, we ponder the passing quality of this world and the fading of its glories. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading must surely have shocked, even horrified, His apostles. Let’s look at His stunning words and seek to apply them in our own life.

The Place of this Gospel – Jesus is standing just outside of Jerusalem. In the last two months we have followed Him on His final journey: leaving Galilee, heading south along the Jordan River, passing through Jericho, and now making the nearly 2000-foot ascent to Jerusalem.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at the top of the Mount of Olives with His apostles. From this vantage point, they look across the Kidron Valley to the magnificent Temple and all of Jerusalem spread out before them. The apostles marvel at the glorious beauty of the Temple. Its large, perfectly-carved, white, gilded, ashlar stones gleam like the sun. Indeed, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world, so beautiful and majestic.

Jesus challenges their admiration. He shocks them with the admonition that all the glory they see is soon to be destroyed, that not one stone will be left on another, that it will all be thrown down (Mk 13:2). Shocked, the apostles ask Him when this will happen and what signs will precede this awful event.

In what has become known as “Mount Olivet discourse,” the Lord warns, in great detail, of the coming destruction of the Temple and indeed of all Jerusalem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain similar descriptions of what Jesus said on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem in her glorious heyday.

Jesus warns of wars and rumors of wars. He speaks of a time in the near future when nation will rise against nation and a terrible conflict will ensue. In effect, He warns His disciples and their followers to have nothing to do with the coming wars. He tells them that when they see Jerusalem being surrounded by an army, they should know that her destruction is at hand. If someone is on a man’s rooftop, he should not to go back into the house to gather his possessions; rather, he should get out immediately. If someone is out in the field, he should not reenter the city of Jerusalem; rather, he should flee to the hills. Jerusalem is doomed for its lack of faith and zealots are picking up the war with the Romans that they are destined to lose (Luke 21, Matt 24, Mark 13).

All of this leads us to today’s Gospel (from the Mount Olivet discourse), which picks up in the middle. Jesus warns of days of tribulation, when the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky!

In reading a text like this, we must not fall prey to an overly literal interpretation. Jesus is using prophetic language, a way of speaking that is meaningful, but not to be understood scientifically or literally. Stars do not actually fall from the sky!

If I were to say, “The world has been turned upside down,” you wouldn’t expect that if you looked back toward Earth from outer space you would see Australia at the top and North America at the bottom. If I were to say, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you wouldn’t expect to look out your window and see animals coming down from the sky and landing on the front lawn. Although I’m speaking figuratively, you understand what I mean.

So it is with Jesus’ use of prophetic imagery. Speaking of the heavenly luminaries as being darkened or cast down is a prophetic way of saying that all the fixed points, all the ways by which we tell time, know the seasons, navigate, and find perspective will be lost to us! The world as the Jewish people know it, centered on the Temple and rooted in their liturgical calendar, is about to be swept away. To the ancient Jewish people, the Temple was Big Ben. It was both the clock of the liturgical cycle and the great visual center of Israel.

The Lord is teaching them that what they see as the hub of all they do is about to be taken away. The Temple, with all its rituals, its liturgical cycles, and its endless slaughter of animals in sacrifice for sin, is about to be replaced. These ancient rituals merely pointed to Jesus and all that He would do. Jesus is now the Temple; He is also the Lamb Sacrifice. All that the Temple pointed to is fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the Temple is at an end. Jesus is ushering in a New Covenant.

In the Mount Olivet discourse, Jesus prophesies the end of the Temple, which will take place in a biblical 40 years. Sure enough, 40 years later (in A.D. 70), the Roman Army, after having surrounded Jerusalem for a period of 3 ½ months, breached the walls, poured into the city, and destroyed the Temple and all of Jerusalem. In this epic battle, according to Josephus, 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives. As Jesus prophesied, not one stone was left on another. According to Josephus, so complete was the destruction of Jerusalem, that when the Romans had finished their work it was not clear that the city had ever existed.

So, this is the place of this Gospel, a place of epic significance in the ancient world. An era of 1000 years was coming to an end. The world as the Jewish people knew it was ending. The Temple has never been rebuilt; it has been replaced by a Judaism without sacrifice, a rabbinic, a synagogue system. In 2000 years, despite several attempts, the Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt. Everything Jesus predicted came to pass. This is the historical place and context of today’s Gospel.

What does this mean for us, some 2000 years later? Let’s consider three basic themes.

1. The Perspective of Passing – Toward the end of the Gospel passage, the Lord says, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Note the definitiveness of this statement: this world will pass away. All of the things that impress us: the might of the powerful, the influence of the popular, the glory of all the glitterati—all of this will pass away.

Indeed, even now it is passing away, its destruction is at hand. Scripture says,

  • The world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:31).
  • We have here, no lasting city (Heb 13:14).
  • Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no hope. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing (Psalm 146:3-4).

Yes, all of the glory, even what seems beautiful and fair, is passing away. Don’t be so impressed by this world’s offerings. All of it—no matter how powerful, influential, or sturdy it may seem—is slated for destruction. It is already passing away.

Some years ago, I was in a museum and in one of the exhibits saw a photograph of a family from about the 1880s. At the bottom of the photo was this inscription: “My family, as it appeared for a brief time last summer”—a poignant caption. I thought of the people in that photo, every one of them now dead. I also knew that the house in front of which the photo was taken had long since been destroyed, replaced by an expanding city district of buildings. All is passing; nothing remains here for long.

Painful though this perspective may be, it is important and healing. It brings with it a string kind of serenity. Like every truth, the truth that all things are passing sets us free. As for man, his days, or the flower of the field are like the grass. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him anymore (Psalm 130:15-16). We are reminded not to set down too many roots here so that we are not resentful when this world passes away.

2. The Permanence Proclaimed – The Lord tells us that His words will not pass away. Although the world will pass away, the truth and the Word of God will remain forever.

Too many people root their lives in passing things. The challenge for us is to root our lives in the Word of God, which remains forever. Worldly glories, power, access, and wealth—all these things fade and disappear, but God’s wisdom and His plan remain forever.

Consider, for a moment, the Church. The Lord has said that the forces of Hell would strive to prevail, overpower, and destroy the Church, but He promised that such attempts would never be successful (Matt 16:18). The Church is indefectible, by God’s Word, by His promise. No weapons, no war waged against the Church, will prevail.

In all of this the Lord has been proven correct. The Church has seen the Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Socialist Republic, and many others rise to power only to fade and disappear.

How many heresies, how many philosophies have come and gone in the age of the Church? How many have laughed at the Church, announcing that she was passé, that her day was over, and that they would bury her? The Church has buried every one of her undertakers, outlived every one of her critics. Despite every prediction of her demise, she has persevered until this very day. By God’s grace, she has a permanence that outlasts every one of her enemies. She has read the funeral rites over every single prophet of her doom, and she will continue to do so.

In recounting all of this we do not simply gloat that an institution known as the Church has survived. Rather, we announce that the Church is the Bride of Christ and also His Body. The Church cannot be destroyed, not because of human ingenuity but on account of the power and grace of God. She will endure even though at times she will suffer, be ridiculed, or be marginalized. She will outlive every enemy. She will emerge from every persecution. She will never be removed. For the Church is the Body of Christ, the living Word of God. Though the world will pass away, the Word of the Lord will remain forever!

3. The Priority Prescribed – If this world as we know it is passing away, and the Lord, His Kingdom, His Church, and His Word will remain forever, what should be our priority? The Lord says, in effect, that we know very well what our priority should be, but we willfully ignore it.

Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates (Matt 24:32-33).

Yes, we know very well that the Day of Judgment is coming. Too easily, though, we dream on and do not follow the prescribed priority. Wealth, fame, and glory are all uncertain and clearly passing, but death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell are certain and remain forever. We too easy fiddle on with things that are uncertain and passing while neglecting what is certain and eternal. Ridiculous!

It would be foolish to book passage on a sinking ship. Similarly, it is imprudent to make this world and its demands our fundamental priority. It is wise to set our sights on, and lay hold of, the Kingdom that lasts forever.

It is sad that so many spend people their time “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” of this world. It is tragic how much time, effort, and passion we spend on things that pass through our fingers like sand. So much of our effort is expended on furthering our career, amassing wealth, and enlarging our home; so little is spent on improving our spiritual life.

Parents spend more time worrying about what college their children will attend than where they will spend eternity. If their child is failing math, they will go to great lengths to hire tutors to improve his test scores. Never mind that the child barely knows the four Gospels, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, or even who Adam and Eve were. Never mind all that; we need to make sure they understand polynomials! It is fine that parents care about math scores and college venues, but how sad it is that eternal things often go unattended.

The greatest duty of parents is to prepare their children for eternity, yet far more time and effort is often spent preparing them for passing things like a career. While education and career are important, eternal life is far more so. A son or daughter may graduate from Harvard Law School and become a famous attorney yet still go to Hell!

What are our priorities? Frankly, most of our priorities are not things that matter to God. Even if we attain the passing things for which we strive, they will all ultimately slip through our fingers. We obsess over passing things like our physical health while neglecting enduring things like our spiritual health. We should care for our bodies, but even more should we care for our souls. If we would expend as much effort looking for a time and place to pray as we do searching for a restaurant for dinner, we would be spiritual heavyweights rather than physically overweight.

In today’s Gospel the Lord stands before the Temple: an impressive building, a symbol of power and of worldly glories. Impressed by it though the Apostles are, the Lord is not impressed with passing things. He counsels us to get our priorities straight and to focus on things that last: His Word, which never passes away, and our ultimate destiny, where we will spend eternity.

We find time for everything else, why not for prayer, Scripture, fellowship in the Church, and the sacraments?

What are your priorities? Be honest, now, be honest.

This world is passing away. Far more essential for us than power, prestige, money, possessions, worldly philosophies, and the latest trends, is the Word of the Lord, which never passes away.

The world will laugh and say that God’s word is out-of-date, old-fashioned, or even hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. In the end, time will prove where wisdom is. Long after our current critics, those who scorn the teachings of the Lord in the Scriptures and the Church, have passed on, we will still be here preaching Christ and Him crucified.

None of this is meant to sound triumphalist. It is simply rooted in a Word of truth that the Lord spoke long ago on a hillside overlooking glorious buildings soon to be reduced to rubble and an age soon to pass away. He said simply this: Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.

In the end, Jesus wins. I know because I checked the end of the story. You can look it up (Rev 20-23). Get on the winning team. Stop trying to amass a treasure here that you can’t keep anyway.