Loss and the Christian Virtue of Hope

The road to Emmaus is a journey through hopelessness with a God who refuses to leave us.
December 7th, 2017

We Had Hoped

On Resurrection Sunday, two of Jesus's disciples set out for the town of Emmaus. They leave behind a place of deep sorrow and perplexity and journey toward something familiar, a place as yet untouched by their great loss. As they walk, they talk together about the events of the previous week. A stranger comes close, walks with them, and enters into their conversation. He asks them what they are discussing. One of the disciples speaks; he tells the stranger about Jesus's arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And he says, "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." All of the hopes they had pinned on Christ died with him. The astonishing news that the tomb is empty can't budge them; their hopes remain buried. They speak in the past tense; theirs is an entrenched hopelessness. The stranger who will later reveal himself as Jesus walks with them; he offers a patient corrective to the hopelessness he hears in their words. As he teaches them, a better hope takes root in their hearts. They urge the stranger to stay with them and, later that evening, Jesus takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them to eat. In that instant, their eyes are opened. They say to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked?"

This narrative maps a common movement in human life. It is the movement from sorrow to hopelessness. But it traces another movement as well—the movement of a God who refuses to abandon those who are hopeless. It is this movement that I have discovered in my own life, within my own experience of sorrow. In 2011, my family and I were expecting our second child, Samuel. Around twenty weeks into the pregnancy, he was diagnosed with a relatively rare chromosomal abnormality known as Trisomy 18. We were told that it was a lethal abnormality. Approximately 70 percent of children diagnosed with Trisomy 18 die before birth. Of those who make it to birth, between 90 and 95 percent will die before their first birthday. And most of these children measure their lives in hours or days. So, for the final sixteen weeks of pregnancy, our family prepared simultaneously for a birth and a death. We were fortunate: Samuel was born late in the night on January 1, 2012, and we held him for the entirety of his nearly five-hour life. He was fragile; and he was beautiful. In the cramped space of a neonatal intensive care unit, he was baptized and anointed with oil, sealed as Christ's own forever. Together we commended his life to Christ. The entirety of his life was marked by something far greater than his limitations: it was marked by love.

For the final sixteen weeks of pregnancy, our family prepared simultaneously for a birth and a death.

When we received Sam's diagnosis, we stood still, looking sad. And when Sam died, the heavy weight of sadness stilled us again. And in the long paths of grief that have followed, our sorrow has often stopped forward movement. I have heard myself say the words the disciples said to Jesus on the way to Emmaus. I know what it is like to say, "We had hoped." My family had hoped for another child. And, in an instant, those hopes were defeated. And the ongoing experience of grief is the daily resignation of thousands of additional hopes. When I see the hopes we had for our son realized vicariously in the lives of others' children, I find myself saying those sad (and sometimes bitter) words: "We had hoped."

Discipling Despair

The crushing defeat of the hopes most central to who we are can leave us susceptible to the temptations of despair. Deep sorrow can degrade and destroy our hopeful dispositions. When we experience a demoralizing loss of hope, when we can no longer construe our future as meaningful, when we succumb to the thought that there is no one in whom we can place our hopes—we may abandon ourselves to despair. And willful, entrenched despair is like a poison that destroys us from the inside. We need a better hope, one that can enable us to doubt the conviction of our despair. We need a hope that can help us to resist the movement from sorrow to hopelessness.

The Emmaus Road narrative points us to this hope. Christ walked with them unrecognized, listened to their despondency, helped them to understand the patient work of redemption, and fed them with broken bread. His presence was a gift, infusing in their hearts an abiding and enlivening hope. It was a hope that moved them to return to the spaces of sorrow and brokenness, to those whose hearts were darkened by tempting thoughts of despair. They didn't wait: they returned to Jerusalem on a mission to speak a joyful word that could enliven others' deadened hearts.

There are lessons here for the church. If we are to follow Christ, we ought to follow in the manner of Christ. Like Christ, we need to journey with those who walk away from their sorrow dejected and hopeless. Like Christ, we must refuse to abandon them to their hopelessness. Like Christ, we must walk with them, stay with them, and offer to them sacramental reminders that the love of Christ is seen most clearly in the way he was broken for us. We need to point them to the Christ who made himself known in the sign of his broken body—a sign that resurrection comes from the places of darkness and death. As Christians, we need to understand the practices characteristic of this merciful work of consolation so that we can fulfill this calling well.

Christian hope is not magic; it is not wish-fulfillment; it is not a technology for easy comforts.

Hope Takes Practice

Christian hope is not magic; it is not wish-fulfillment; it is not a technology for easy comforts. It is a gift of God that can preserve us in the midst of devastating sorrow. But it is difficult to exercise this hope in the midst of great loss. It is difficult to sustain hope on our own. So, how can we help others recover a capacity to receive the hope of Christ and entrust themselves to him? What are the practices that can help us to minister to those tempted to move from sorrow to hopelessness?

First, there are the fundamental practices of the Christian community in worship. We must continue in the habit of meeting together to hear the story of God's redemptive work retold, to pray together, and to receive gifts of bread and wine. These practices have a formative power in our lives. In my own experience of deep loss—in those times I have found it tempting to move from sorrow to hopelessness—I have participated in these practices (sometimes as mere ritual). When I had no words of my own to pray and I could only mouth the lyrics of the hymns, others said the prayers and sang the songs. I let their voices substitute for mine: I listened and tried to affirm the words. These practices have done something to me. The practice of hearing the story of Christ's relentless pursuit of the hopeless by itself flickers hope. The practice of joining in the prayers of the church has fostered in me a hopeful trust. I can pray laments with the psalmist; I can dwell in the words and trace the subtle transition from disorientation to trust. The practice of receiving the Eucharist moves me to kneel and to receive in the hope that these gifts can sustain me. Each of these practices fosters a recognition of my need to remain open to God. Christian hope is sustained and extended through these corporate liturgical practices.

But for those who suffer deeply, it may be difficult to enter into the spaces where we engage in these practices. Christian communities can often be inhospitable spaces. The discomfort of our churches over the presence of profound loss, our insistence on a faith that is only as deep or as strong as our wish to feel comfortable, our impatience with the length of grief—these factors (among others) can make our communities hard places for sufferers to feel welcome. Why should sufferers compound their experience of suffering by entering a communion of those who offer foolish words, anxious remedies, and inconsiderate thoughts? The Christian community is called to be a place of hospitable welcome. We must invite sufferers to be with us. We must open ourselves to them, committing ourselves to sharing their lives, their burdens, and their sorrow. We must invite them to stay with us and prepare ourselves to be changed by the encounter. The hopes of others can be sustained and extended through these practices of hospitable welcoming.

Finally, I want to point to the grace of friendship, to the ways friends accompany us in sorrow. Often the primary thing that prevents us from embracing hopelessness and despair is the love of friends. Friendship is a preserving gift that enfolds and sustains us, leaving us open to the gift of God's hope. The hopes of friends on our behalf can be a sign that all hope is not lost. Entrusting our fragile hearts to their hopes can enable us to resist despair. And this work of friendship can heal; it can confront and dissipate a growing cynicism. Even when individual hope seems impossible, the hopes of others can enable one to endure grievous difficulty. It can transform sadness into something that is not merely sad—it is sadness subsumed within the beauty of love. Recently, my ten-year-old son, Micah, said the following words: "I used to think that losing Sam was just sad, but I think it has made me really sensitive to kids with disabilities. When I help them, I feel like I am helping my brother." He affirms its sadness, but he sees that it isn't just sad. It's sad and beautiful together. And his words are a continued source of hope for my fractured heart. My son has been a friend to me.

The hopes of friends on our behalf can be a sign that all hope is not lost.

But how can the church itself engage in these practices of friendship?

Mercifully caring for those who are in danger of losing hope begins by attending closely to the goods for which they longed. We must seek to understand what they value and the great sadness its disappointment means for them. There is the obvious loss, but it is more than this. There is what this loss represents, what it means for their memories, what it means for their future, what it means for the relationships that constitute the core of who they are, and what it means for how they understand the goods still available to them. To engage in the work of friendship is to make your love and hope on their behalf align with these closely held cares and concerns. The hopes of others can be sustained and extended through these practices of attentive listening.

But hoping for another requires more than understanding their disappointment and disaffection. It involves making the things the other loves central to the consolation one offers. It involves joining your loving sadness to their grief. It is this abiding—the willingness to sit and share their sorrow—that enables an endurance otherwise impossible. It is this quiet presence that enacts a solidarity a person needs to retain hope. It is this presence that helps the person to see that not all is lost. Friendship remains. The hopes of others can be sustained and extended through these practices of compassionate accompaniment.

And, finally, hopes for others move us to search for goods that remain available even when they aren't apparent. So often, those who feel hopeless think life has been robbed of meaning. They cannot grasp anything good; goodness is no longer present to them. It is this sense of futility that suggests there is nothing meaningful left to anchor their hope. So, we hope for another by diligently seeking remnant goods among the ashes of disappointed hope. We widen our eyes to perceive where they are; and we find ways of drawing the attention of those who grieve to the meaning that remains. If nothing else, there is meaning in the hope that enduring suffering for the sake of love is itself a great good. The hopes of others can be sustained and extended through these practices of vigilant seeking.

In the midst of our experience of great loss, this is how I described the social shape of Christian hope:

Hope is the stretcher on which we lay broken.
It is the space between which contains us.
It is the cot carried by strong hands along long roads.
Hope holds us, hope bears us along, hope carries us—
Hope is in their hands.

 

Aaron D. Cobb is associate professor of philosophy at Auburn University at Montgomery. He has published research on the history and philosophy of science, moral and intellectual virtues, and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of Loving Samuel: Suffering, Dependence, and the Calling of Love. And he is currently working on a monograph titled A Virtue-Based Defense of Perinatal Hospice.

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