Noam Chomsky, that more secular modern-day prophet of social justice, once said, “If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, then there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance for you to contribute to making a better world. That’s your choice.” (The Chronicles of Dissent) Our world is a world of misery, mishap, hardship and sorrow. If we are lucky enough, or rich enough, or are sufficiently ‘successful’ that we can avoid most of these things (as most of us here have), then we discover that misery, mishap, hardship and sorrow can come in other guises: pointlessness, meaninglessness, frustration, powerlessness, uselessness, loneliness and the like can be just as difficult, just as painful and just as enervating.
These days, the media adds to our sense of foreboding, having taken to itself the new role as harbinger of doom — “Read all about it: climate change, bushfires, and corona viruses,” these being but the latest headlines of the things that threaten us and against which we are seemingly helpless. In such an environment we find it just as hard to live as those who live in more Third-World like conditions — our perpetual consumerism with its unceasing demand for more, our addictions, our increasing levels of domestic violence, and our suicides all testify to this. If this is all we know, our world is just as miserable, though in a ‘nice’ kind of way. Our bondage may be preferable to theirs and our cell may be more comfortable, but nevertheless, we do still live in a prison that oppresses us just the same: more work, more stress, more drink, another drug, buy some, get more, get better, do more, do better, be better; we can never just be ourselves but are forever harried. Our world may not ask the more usual ‘Why’ questions: “Why suffering? why death?” but it does still ask, “Why?” though perhaps in a more desperate form: “Why was I ever born?” As it said over one of the German Concentration Camp in World War II: ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ You would never guess from the low levels of our contentedness and satisfaction, that we live in a country that has one of the highest per capita incomes, if not the highest, in the world; we have never been better off! As Noam Chomsky put it: “If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee there will be no hope.” We have moved into a hopeless world, and it’s horrible to live here … “Why was I ever born?” ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here’ is hung out over the entrance to our brave new world, too. (C.f.: Genesis 3:23)
Today’s Gospel has a different view: “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised; for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready for all the nations to see, a light to enlighten the gentiles and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-31) Here is a man who at the end of his life is a happy man. What was his secret? The Gospel describes him as ‘a good man who looked forward to Israel’s comforting, who eagerly awaited the consolation of Israel, a man who lived in prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. (Luke 2:25) Later, the Gospel says of the prophetess Anna: ‘She spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.’ (Luke 2:38) In this way the Gospel underlines for us the importance of this ‘looking forward’ in hope, as Simeon did. Another good and righteous man living in Jerusalem at that time was Joseph of Arimathea; he, too, is described as looking forward to ‘God’s Kingdom.’ (Luke 23:50; Mark 15:43; Acts 2:5. C.f.: Mark 1:15) He, too, was waiting in expectation for something. We all need to look forward with eager longing, if we are to have some hope and not be oppressed by this world’s misery.
Of Simeon it was said: ‘the Holy Spirit was on him.’ (Luke 2:25) We have all been given this Holy Spirit; his hope is not beyond us. (John 20:22; Acts 2:4) St Paul writes well on this matter: ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For creation’s anxious hope is eagerly expecting the unveiling of the sons of God. For creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of him who subjected it — in hope that even creation itself would be freed from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole of creation has been groaning with the pains of expectation, like those of childbirth, until now. And not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, also groan within eagerly expecting sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is not hope — for who would hope for what he can see? So, we hope for what we do not see, and with patience we eagerly expect it.’ (Romans 8:18-25) Though this world would have us believe that all is doom and gloom, St Paul teaches that we ‘who have the first-fruits of the Spirit can hope to become son and daughters of God.’
What does this mean? What is this hope that we ought to eagerly expect? Again, St Paul puts well our human condition: “To will good works is present in me, but to do them is not. I do not do the good I want to do, but I practice the evil I do not want.” (Romans 7:18-19) None of us want to be evil; we all want to be good. But somehow, in between our desiring and our doing, it comes out wrong: we mess up, we do the wrong thing, we hurt people, even those we love and care most for, and not always even willingly, and then we regret what we have done, but can do nothing to undo it. Our frustration is well put by St Paul: “Miserable man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Jesus was a good man. We would like it to be said of us: ‘He is a good man/she is a good woman.’ (Mark 10:17-18) In Jesus, a human just like us, we see one who can do the good he wants to do … all of the time! In him we see that it is possible for one like us to do the good we want to do; he is our hope — I want to be like that; I want what he’s got, that I might be like him. This is the ‘groan within that eagerly expects sonship, the redemption of our bodies,’ that Paul speaks of; this is his Spirit come upon us that ‘joins in to help our weakness — we do not know what we need to ask for it in prayer, so the Spirit intercedes for us with unexpressed groaning,’ as Paul will put it later. (Romans 8:26) In Jesus, we see our hope realised: it is possible. For us to live and be good in this world of misery, mishap, hardship and sorrow instead of adding to it, we need to take a firm grip on this hope that is held out to us (Hebrews 6:18) — for this we are saved.
This is what this morning’s Gospel means when it said of Simeon: he was ‘a good man who looked forward to Israel’s comforting.’ To him was ‘shown the Christ of God,’ and he could go in peace. (Luke 2:30) In our hope, he is revealed to us as he is, as well! (1 John 3:2) Our hope is to be like him; it will happen, if we cling to it, and then, we too, will be able to go in peace at the end of our days. (Hebrews 3:6) For, in clinging to our hope in him, we will (perhaps even unknowingly) cooperate with his Spirit come upon us, so that, as St Paul has it, we are ‘conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son might be the first-born of many brothers and sisters.’ (Romans 8:29) This is the ‘anxious hope of all creation’ in which lies not just our redemption, but that of the whole earth — imagine a world (our world) in which we all do the right thing: for one thing climate change would no longer be a problem, for we would all do what is needed to care for our earth, our home, and all that is in her. (Genesis 2:15) To go back to Noam Chomsky: “If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, then there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance for you to contribute to making a better world. That’s your choice.”
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO