Strong Enough for Hope

I’m a big believer in unforeseen catastrophes and the crushed hopes of mice and men. The Titanic sinks and most people say “How could this happen?” I say, “Figures.” I’m the guy who listens for the other shoe to drop, who looks for the downside of Paradise, who keeps his guard up lest I be disappointed. That posture can have its advantages (say, when you are a Seattle Mariners fan or you get a fever 12 hours before you are supposed go on a dream vacation), but it’s also got its problems.

Now I recognize that life is not a bed of roses and that many of our hopes never come to anything. But I also know St. Thomas the Apostle was a sensible stoic man like me. He knew the score. He was well acquainted with Murphy’s law. He firmly believed that just because somebody was a great teacher and even a miracle worker, that didn’t mean that some tragedy couldn’t blindside him and bring everything crashing down in ruins.

So when word reached Jesus of the death of Lazarus, Thomas’ response is perfectly in character: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” This is stoic, make-the-best-of-a-tough-life loyalty to Jesus, a good man whose luck has run out (as sensible realists like Thomas knew it must sooner or later). It is not cynicism or despair (Thomas had too much native solidity for that). Rather, it is a sort of flat-footed Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran resolution to soldier through a tragedy because it’s just what you do. Peter was the disciple of exalted heights and abysmal depths. He calls Jesus “son of the living God” and a few minutes later gets called “Satan” by Jesus. He promises the heroic Errol Flynn gestures (“Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away”) and disgraces himself by falling to pieces before the cock crows three times. Thomas is made of heavier and duller metal than Peter. He doesn’t wimp out, but he doesn’t hope for much either.

Not hoping for much serves you well if you figure you’re going to be a peasant all your life, privileged to a few modest joys of sunrise and singing bird and spending most of your time trying to figure out how to keep the wolf from the door. But precisely because of that modesty in hope, Thomas is left unprepared for what Jesus does in the face of total defeat: he never expects Lazarus to walk out of the tomb and share a dinner table with him that evening. And even seeing that couldn’t erase a lifetime as an Eeyore in one blow. And so, when (a few weeks later) Jesus himself faced death (partly because of the popularity he evoked by raising Lazarus), it may well have struck Thomas as the final bitter irony, the last cruel stroke of fate, that the Universe should use that miracle as the hammer for nailing Jesus to his fate: He saved others. Could he not save himself?

So it was still in character when Thomas didn’t buy the story of the resurrection. He’d spent a lifetime braced for disaster. He was strong enough for tragedy, but not strong enough for hope.

That, I suppose, is why hope is a theological virtue, and not a natural one. Hope–ultimate hope–doesn’t come naturally to us. We need the miraculous gift of the Risen Christ. But with such a gift, even the most unpromising base metals can be transmuted into gold, as Thomas came to discover. For it dull, unhopeful, Eeyorish Thomas, who made the first full-throated profession of faith in Christ’s deathless deity: “My Lord and my God!”

Not that Thomas began to have illusions about how good the world is. Rather, he was given the strength to hope for more than the world.

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