Sunday, May 8, 2011

Easter 3

If you will indulge me for a moment of grammatical reflection,
think about the word “hope” in relation to verb tenses.
Hope is normally something we speak of in the present tense,
as when we say, “I hope it won’t rain tomorrow”
or, as in our second reading today, when St. Peter reminds us
that our “faith and hope are in God.”
While hope is always directed to the future,
we normally think about it
as something that is going on in the present.
Hope in the present tense is a hope that we possess –
a living hope.

But our first reading gives us an example
of hope spoken in the future tense,
when Peter quotes Psalm 16, saying,
“my flesh, too, will dwell in hope.”
It seems at first a bit odd to speak of hope
as something we will have in the future,
as if we were to say, “tomorrow I will hope it doesn’t rain.”
Maybe what we have here is something like a hope for hope –
a hope that we do not yet experience, but which we desire.

What about hope spoken in the past tense?
What about when we say, faced with our soggy picnic,
“I had hoped that it wouldn’t rain today”?
Or, perhaps, “I hoped that this job interview would work out,”
or “We were hoping that the tumor was benign,”
or “I hoped we would grow old together.”
In every statement of hope placed in the past tense
we hear echoes of a story
of disappointment
or disillusion,
of broken dreams
and abandoned aspirations.

This is what we hear echoing in the words of the disciples
as they converse with the unrecognized Jesus
on the road to Emmaus:
“we were hoping
that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
These are words full
of the pathos of hope in the past tense:
“we were hoping. . . ,”
with the implied-but-unstated conclusion:
“. . . but now we hope no longer.”
These words sum up the shattering effect of the crucifixion
on Jesus’s followers:
they speak of a heritage of hope
that had been bequeathed to the people of Israel,
a hope for a savior who would free them from oppression;
they speak of the hope that in Jesus
all of God’s promises would be made good;
they speak of the death of that hope on Mount Calvary
and its burial in the garden tomb.
Perhaps only a hope of such comprehensive grandeur –
a hope that everything would be set right –
could come crashing down with such devastating force.
The disciples’ words speak of a hope
that has been so thoroughly snuffed out
that even the reports of the women
about the empty tomb
cannot bring it back to life.
Indeed, in their disappointment,
the very presence of Jesus walking beside them
goes unrecognized.

But, of course, the story does not end there.

We are told how, as they walk along together,
the risen Jesus explains to them
the true meaning of that heritage of hope
that had been so disappointed:
how it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things
and enter into glory.”
While this is not enough to reawaken their hope,
to allow them to recognize the risen Jesus,
it moves them just enough to ask this stranger
to stay the night with them.
Perhaps this is a case of hope in the future tense:
his words awaken in them a desire to someday hope again.

And so, as night falls, Jesus sits at table with them,
takes the bread,
says the blessing,
breaks it
and gives it to them.
And then their eyes are opened;
they recognize him in the breaking of the bread;
hope is reawakened in them
and they can see the truth of the risen Jesus;
the hope that was just a memory,
something that seemed irretrievably past,
becomes a present reality
as they receive the bread of life at Christ’s table.

And it can be that way with us, as well.
As we come to recognize Christ at the table of the altar
our hopes that had fallen into the past tense
can be spoken again in the present tense.
We who said, “we were hoping. . . ,”
with the implied-but-unstated conclusion:
“. . . but now we hope no longer,”
can know in the breaking of the bread
the presence of Christ, risen and alive,
just as those disciples at Emmaus did.
And a hope that knows the risen Christ
is a hope that can be spoken in the present tense.

We are surrounded by things
that seem to offer us hope:
medical breakthroughs
that promise cures deadly diseases,
forecasts of economic revival
that could fulfill out material wants,
and even the killing of a particularly evil man,
whose death might promise
an end to violence and terror.
But all of these hopes
can so easily slip into the past tense.
For all of our medical breakthroughs,
we still die.
Every economic revival
is followed by a downturn,
and our material wants remain insatiable.
The killing of one evil man
typically generates two or three more,
ready to take up his mission of violence and terror.
And we find ourselves saying, “We were hoping. . .”

But as Christians we believe
that the hope that we receive at this altar –
a hope that is born in the breaking of the bread,
a hope that is raised up with the risen Jesus –
is a hope that is always spoken in the present tense.
Christ is risen,
giving us a hope that will never die again.
So let us leave behind all illusory hopes,
which so quickly slip into the past tense,
and cling to the one hope
that rises with Christ and lives forever.