As you all hopefully know, the theme of tonight is hope. This theme fits of course very well to these weeks before Christmas, as we both look forward and back: back to the fulfilment of many prophecies with the birth of Christ, and forward to the fulfilment of many prophecies with the coming of Christ in glory. But there is another reason why I’m talking about hope today. In October we started a Student Bible Study, and ever since we meet once in three weeks to discuss the theme of the night. This year’s theme is virtues, and in that light we have talked about love, faith, and hope – as you can see this corresponds to the themes of the last three Praise & Prayer services. In 2015 we’ll continue our studies by discussing prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. It is in this context, the context of virtues, that I want to talk about hope. The main questions I want to address tonight run as follows: what are virtues, and why is hope a virtue? What is hope and what does it look like in daily life? And finally: why is Mary an example of hope?
What are virtues, why hope?
Talking about virtues has everything to do with both your character and practical choices you make in daily life. The Greek philosopher Aristotle formulated three necessary steps in order to change your character: you need a goal (what do you want to be like, what are you aiming for), you need to formulate the moral strengths to attain the goal (which qualities do you need to become what you are aiming for), and you need to undergo a process of moral training in which you make these qualities your own. To turn it around: the choices you make in daily life can lead to certain habits: if you choose to behave in a certain way at one point, it might be easier to behave this way the next time you’re in a similar situation, even easier at the third time etc. In due time these habits may become so strong, that they become a sort of second nature of yours; you don’t really need to think about this behaviour anymore, you just act. This can of course be both negative and positive: these habits you’ve made your own can either be virtues or vices. The question basically is whether your choices in daily life will – on the longer term – make you a virtuous person; a person with a character that has been formed by the thousands of little choices you’ve made in daily life and enables you to do good.
According to Aristotle and many other philosophers, there are four so-called cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage. These virtues are not necessarily better than others, but all others depend on them, or fall within these four categories. Practice these virtues, and you’ll be able to achieve Aristotle’s goal. The Christian tradition has never denied the importance of these cardinal virtues, but it expanded the list with the three theological virtues: love, hope, and faith. The four cardinal virtues are explicitly mentioned in the apocryphal books, but the wisdom literature in Scripture speaks of justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance too. Finally, you will find the virtues individually mentioned throughout Scripture. To give a small example: the people of Israel are called multiple times to ‘be of good courage’ when they reach the promised land. The three theological virtues faith, hope, and love are of course mentioned very often, especially by St. Paul. You could say that these seven virtues form together a heavenly character. Or, in other words, by making these virtues our own, we learn to speak the heavenly language. Learning to speak a new language is, of course not necessarily easy. Even when you know the vocabulary and grammar, old habits may prevent you from speaking a new, or heavenly language properly.
A definition of hope
So what is the virtue of hope then? In the remainder of this talk I want to give you three short definitions of hope, tell you what virtues are connected to hope, and illustrate these definitions and virtues in the story of Mary. To begin with the three definitions:
Hope is a steadfast turning toward the fulfilment of man’s nature, that is, toward good, only when it has its source in the reality of grace in man and is directed toward supernatural happiness in God. [Josef Pieper]
Hope is the settled, unwavering confidence that God will not leave us or forsake us, but will always have more in store for us than we could ask or think. (..) Learning to hope in the present time is learning not just to hope for a better place than we currently find ourselves in, but learning to trust the God who is and will remain the God of the future. [N.T. Wright]
Hope is faith directed to the future. God is the object of hope, just as God is the object of faith. Revelation defines or expresses the structure of faith; and Gods promises define or express the structure of our hope. [Peter Kreeft]
So if I may combine these definitions, I think we can agree that hope has to do with a trust in God that tends to look forward to a good future that has been promised by God. These definitions are very well reflected in St. Pauls writing on hope in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8: 18; 22-25
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (..) For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, that is, the redemption from our body. For we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
Christian thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, have taught us that there are at least two virtues which are very much linked to hope: magnanimity (grootmoedigheid in Dutch) and humility. Magnanimity makes us aim for great things, because it seeks great things and wants us to make us become worthy of these great things. Magnanimity is rooted in a firm confidence in the possibilities of human nature, because God created it first and renewed it by Christ’s resurrection. The opposite of magnanimity is despair, a lack of trust in the God who created you and me. Humility, on the other hand, is the knowledge and acceptance of the reality that God is our Creator and we are His creature and therefore utterly dependant on this God. The opposite of humility is pride, or a lack of fear of the Lord. You could say that where magnanimity and humility combined lead to a joyful expectation and longing for what God has in store for us and the courage to act on this expectation, pride and despair lead to either sadness and a terrorizing of yourself or a terrorizing of others. Finally, I think it follows logically that hope and prayer are very much connected. Why should we pray if we either lack enough trust in God or think we don’t need Him? On the other hand, will a joyful and confident expectation of the future not automatically lead us to ask Him to fulfil His promises?
Mary and Zacharias confronted
In the parts of the Gospel of St. Luke we read earlier this service, we heard that both Mary and Zacharias received great news from an angel. Both of them were told that, although their circumstances made it very unlikely, God would give them a son. In both cases, the angel first needs to tell them that they should not fear, they should rejoice! However, both Mary and Zacharias seem a bit confused: Zacharias asks How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years, and Mary responds the angel by asking: How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? But what a different response they receive! Zacharias, for not believing what was promised by God, is struck down, until he recognizes Gods plan. Mary, on the other hand, gets a straight answer to her question. Why the difference?
Although the questions of Zacharias and Mary seem to be similar, they originate from a very different source. Zacharias is actually doubting the possibility of this promise; isn’t this promise impossible? How can this be true? Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t question the possibility of the fulfilment, but rather asks how God will fulfil this promise. You see the difference? Zacharias basically lacks faith and confidence in God’s word. Mary doesn’t doubt, she only wonders how God will bring this about. You see, Mary recognizes Old Testament prophecies and promises in the message of Gabriel. Gabriel greets Mary with the words Hail, thou who art highly favoured, the Lord is with Thee (..) after which he promised her that she would conceive in her womb, and would bring forth a son whom she had to give the name Jesus. And this son would reign as king, and of his kingdom there shall be no end. The Greek word for Hail also means: rejoice! Look at these verses from the prophet Zephaniah: Sing, o daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy; the King of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee, thou shalt not see evil any more. (..) The Lord, thy God, in the midst of thee is mighty, he will save (..) (Zeph. 3: 14-15; 17). The words used for the Lord, is in the midst of thee literally mean: He is in your womb! Gabriel refers to this promise of God, and Mary probably knew about this prophecy. She has been looking forward to Gods salvation for her people, and now God seems to be fulfilling His promises.
But how will He do this? That is her question; and after Gabriel answered this question she responds with: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. You will of course say that this is very humble of her, and rightly so. She acknowledges the reality, and knows that she is Gods handmaid. But even then, don’t you agree with me that this answer requires more than humility alone? It’s probably impossible to imagine how I would respond to such a direct promise, but I think it’s more likely that I would run away as far as I could than that I would respond in this way. Mary’s confidence in God and humble attitude towards Him is accompanied here with a striving for great things and a courage to respond according to this. She not only knows Gods promises, she not only realizes her utter dependence on God, she is also very confident in God’s great plans with His people! I have been told that in Christian art from the Middle Ages Mary has been pictured very often with the Scriptures open in front of her. Meditating on Gods promises written in Scripture awakes a hope inside us. Or, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans (15:4): For whatever things were written in earlier times were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope. Mary accepts Gabriel’s message humbly, not because she thinks she’s probably the best mother a child could hope for, but because she’s aware of God’s promises for all people. She truly was full of hope.
In this time before Christmas we remember the fact that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, humbled Himself and became man like us. He took our human nature on Himself; God became flesh and dwelt among us. At our baptism we, human beings, became partakers of His Divine nature. This Gospel, this good news, combines joy and grace. Let us look with confidence and great expectation to the future then. For the God who loves you so much that He laid down His own life in order that we might live, will certainly not leave His work with you, or me, or any of us unfinished. Behold, we are handmaids and servants of God, let it be unto us according to His promises. Are we, like Mary, deeply aware of the promises of God to us?
Kreeft, Peter, Back to Virtue. Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion (1986)
Pieper, Josef, Faith, hope, love (1997)
Ratzinger, Joseph/Benedictus XVI, Jesus of Nazareth. The Infancy Narratives (2012)
Wright, N.T, After you believe. Why Christian Character Matters (2010)