This piece explores hope grounded in resurrection. I keep my argument close to the ground, drawing on experience, scripture, and the work of Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians. Along the way, I explore the difference between resuscitation and resurrection by distinguishing between hoping for something and hoping in something—or someone.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson. With edgy precision, she captures the fragility of hope, particularly that kind of hope that invests in outcomes.
We hope for all kinds of things—and not only things with feathers. It’s like a Christmas list, endlessly open to revision. My niece keeps re-submitting hers, as the latest fads vie for top billing. Captive to desire and fantasy, what we hope for alters too quickly.
Sometimes in the bleakest moments, we don’t know what to hope for at all.
When my husband was dying of brain cancer, I said exactly that to a friend. “At this point, I don’t know what to hope for.” Should I hope for him to beat an infection, but continue living in a world without language? Should I hope for death to intervene quickly, even mercifully? I couldn’t imagine an outcome that would restore any semblance of the life we’d shared.
Was I hopeless?
I was certainly broken, surrounded by pieces of a life that had shattered in front of us. I wanted nothing more than for those pieces to come together again into a familiar pattern. I yearned for the life we had. In those long hours in the hospital, I designed imaginary signs for posting alongside the missing pet posters scattered around our neighborhood on bulletin boards and telephone poles. Mine would read: “LOST: My Old Life. If you find it wandering around, please return to 1955 Gouldin Road.”
But I knew that Old Life was not coming back.
Every conceivable medical outcome seemed either obscene or unacceptable, and I found myself at an “impasse situation,” which Belden Lane describes as a point where all normal paths of action are brought to a standstill. I could not imagine what to hope for, but I discovered that a deep and abiding hope held me. I didn’t so much have this hope, as the product of fierce focus or even deep faith. This hope had me—had us both. All we had to do was fall into it, like a trapeze artist who falls into a net. She missed the catch, but she dared everything, because she knew the net was there.
When I could no longer imagine what to hope for, I discovered hope in something called resurrection. I had fallen into the resurrection zone.
No going back
Resurrection is not resuscitation, as Catholic theologian Ronald Rolheiser cautions. The new life that resurrection promises is not the old life reconstituted. Resurrection offers life on new terms entirely, life beyond past experience and deepest longing. Maybe the scariest words in the whole of scripture haunt us from the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The prospect of resurrection terrified me. I prayed that I could stand it; I prayed that I would recognize it when it came.
After all, think of the crowd that experienced that first resurrection. Mark’s gospel records that the women whom Jesus loved run in terror from an empty tomb (Mark 16:8). Maybe they are afraid of being arrested for body-snatching, but I’m guessing they are simply terrified of life on new terms entirely. They literally run from resurrection. Even the disciples, the people who’d been around Jesus 24/7, have a hard time recognizing the Old Jesus in the Risen Christ. They “thought they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:7); they mistake him for a wandering rabbi (Luke 13:13-35); they dismiss him as a bossy bystander who thinks he knows more about fishing than they do (John 21). So desperately do they want the Old Jesus back again, they can’t recognize the Risen Christ in their midst. Their eyes need time to adjust to the resurrection right in front of them.
Graciously, the disciples get the time they need to adjust to the resurrection in their midst. The Risen Christ doesn’t ascend to his Father immediately. He hangs out for a while first. He teaches the disciples on the road to Emmaus and breaks bread with them over a meal. At the Sea of Tiberias, he cooks breakfast for them—the First Breakfast of the resurrection! He eats with them, forgives them for betrayals great and small, then sends them on a mission as “forgiven forgivers.” Gradually, the disciples come to know the Risen Christ in relationship. Hope in something called resurrection is always hope in someone.
For Christians hope in something called resurrection is uniquely hope in someone, someone who is always “coming toward us in love,” Carmelite theologian Constance FitzGerald OCD writes. The “dark night of the soul” dis-members the believer, tearing limb from limb. But then the soul experiences a re-membering, which is not a return to the past or the Old Life in some familiar form, but the approach of something new and utterly unexpected—love. The hymn “Amazing Grace” puts words around the approach of love—“I once was lost, but now am found … ”
Hope in someone is powerfully and paradoxically that someone’s presence in us and for us, despite our blindness, our fears, our longing for mere resuscitation. Again and again, my husband and I were found in words the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians. As we wrote to our fellow-travelers: “We know that it is not our hope that will continue to sustain us, but the life in Christ, as evidenced by what the apostle Paul says: ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’” (Colossians 1:27).
I wish I could tell you I bask in resurrection all the time. I don’t, and like the women in Mark’s gospel running away from an empty tomb, I can’t. I get lost—sometimes deliberately—in the gray world of work and family, the demands of family and the ever-churning cycle of news. But I know it’s there. And I know that if I stop and can stand to notice, there is someone there waiting, ready to approach in love.
I’ll close with the truest definition of hope I’ve found. It comes from the papers of a now-permanent inhabitant of the resurrection zone, my late husband: “If gratitude is the echo of grace, hope is the echo of God’s paying attention to us.”
Constance FitzGerald, OCD, “Impasse and Dark Night,” in Laurie Cassidy and M. Shawn Copeland, Desire, Darkness, and Hope: Theology in a Time of Impasse (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 2021), 77-102.
Belden C. Lane, “Spirituality and Political Commitment: Notes on a Liberation Theology of Nonviolence,” America Magazine (March 14, 1981), 197-202.
Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desertg and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford, 2007).
Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 140-166.