A few weeks ago, I was enjoying daily Facebook memories of the Holy Land pilgrimage I made two years ago. The pilgrimage happened to occur during a rather difficult period of time for me. I was hurting quite deeply and the road ahead was uncertain. Though I have many incredible memories from my pilgrimage, there was one day in particular when faith intersected with what was happening in my life in some rather profound ways. On that day, we visited the Garden of Gethsemane, walked the Via Dolorosa, and entered the empty tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were immersed in the Paschal Mystery.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations was built in the area where it is believed Jesus went to pray after the Last Supper. In front of the altar there is an exposed section of stone upon which Jesus is thought to have prayed. I placed my hand on the stone as I knelt for a moment of prayer. As I prayed, it seemed as though 2,000 years somehow melted away and Jesus and I were both in the Garden. The experience is difficult to describe. It did not seem so much that we were with one another as we were alongside one another, each of us in our own suffering and pain. Though we each suffered alone, we were not alone in suffering. In some ways, the experience haunted me throughout the day.
Later that day part of our group waited to enter the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When I entered the tomb I was struck by the silence and the stillness. I knelt and placed my hand where Jesus’ body would have been laid. I felt a sense of emptiness. It caught me off-guard. After a few moments I noticed something else emerging almost in the peripheries of the experience. It was like I was just barely catching a glimpse of something that was incredibly faint. But faint as it was, it was unmistakable. It was hope. When I recognized it, a deep sense of peace filled the emptiness I was feeling. In that moment, I knew that the difficult things that were weighing on me would somehow work out and give way to something good and new. As I look back two years later, I am abundantly grateful for how things have ultimately unfolded.
I share this story because it is quite clear from the conversations I’ve had in recent weeks that many people are struggling right now. This isn’t exactly surprising with all that is happening in our nation. We are entering the holiday season, a time that is usually marked by numerous joy-filled gatherings and celebrations that bring together loved ones from near and far. But this year will be quite different. Gatherings will be limited as the pandemic continues to surge. Families and friendships are being frayed by the by the extreme polarization that extends beyond politics into many other aspects of our lives. The economic conditions are fraught with uncertainty, especially for those who have lost their jobs or seen significant reductions to their income. People are hurting and suffering. Many are grieving. Hope seems elusive.
Hope is one of the theological virtues that help us live in relationship with God. Like any virtue, it doesn’t just happen magically. The seed is planted by God’s grace, but it develops and is strengthened in our lives when we exercise it. Remembering is a powerful way to exercise hope. In the stories of our faith traced throughout salvation history, we remember that God is always with us. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember the fullness of the Paschal Mystery. In the stories of our own lives, we remember how we have experienced the Paschal Mystery ourselves. Remembering how God has been faithful in the past strengthens our hope in God’s continued faithfulness now and into the future.
Hope is not wishful thinking. It is deep trust in the grace and providence of God. Life can be painful and confusing. It can be unfair, unjust, and uncertain. It can be empty and lonely. But hope reminds us that when we are suffering, Jesus suffers alongside us. God loves us more deeply and passionately than we can even imagine. Hope anchors us in that love, especially when the storms of life are disrupting everything else. Hope lifts our gaze from the difficulties and darkness that we are journeying through so we can look ahead, watching for the new life that will emerge on the horizon. For that, we can be abundantly grateful.