A number of years ago, I wandered for an afternoon in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. It’s a gorgeous place, friends. Architecturally magnificent. And it just feels royal in nature (especially to this farm-raised Midwesterner).
On that particular day I walked among the pillars and pews preoccupied. Fear and anxiety had my attention, but as I began to absorb the physical beauty of my surroundings, my thoughts parted and I found my gaze rising.
I looked up, friends. And I saw Hope.
More specifically, I saw Hope personified in the stained glass. And Hope herself – all bright and whimsical in her flowing flowery dress – was looking up. This stained-glass image of the theological virtue of Hope, with her eyes fixed on the heavens, stirred something in me. I felt my heart lift, and I took a deep breath.
In fact, I was so moved by Hope that I bought a small window decal of the stained glass depicting her in the cathedral gift shop. When I got back to New Jersey, where I was in graduate school, I promptly put the decal on the windshield of my rusty green jeep. (Total kitsch move, I know. Sorry/not sorry!)
So there I was driving around the Garden State with a reminder to look up. There is Hope. In the mundane, in the complicated, in the ugly, in the pain – look up.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the idea of hope again. This past summer I revisited some of Jürgen Moltmann’s writings. And friends, this guy (who is a lovely 89-year-old German theologian!) does a remarkable job writing about hope. Back in 1960 he was plagued by this question:
“Why has Christian theology allowed hope to escape it, when this is its very own, special theme?”1
It’s a question that prompted him to write his work Theology of Hope. And it’s a question that I feel I need to ask of myself. In my lived theology – the ordinary outworking of what I believe – have I let the beautiful promise of hope escape?
Before I began digging into Moltmann’s work early this year, I wanted to find some background information on the stained-glass depiction of the virtue of Hope that was so powerful for me when I was in Oxford. Not surprisingly, a quick online search brings up some terrific images. (Yay, internet! You can even take an incredibly cool 360-degree tour of Christ Church Cathedral here.) The stained-glass window rendering Hope was designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made by William Morris in the 1870s. People have been looking up at this vibrant personification of Hope for decades, friends!
In further digging around online, I discovered that Burne-Jones produced a number of other works depicting Hope. I was so jazzed to get a look at these other works, but honestly friends, my heart dropped when I saw the artist’s last rendition of Hope. Here it is.
See the differences?
In the earlier stained-glass depiction of Hope, she has all this beautiful foliage behind her. (Go ahead and scroll back up if you need to see her again!) But when Burne-Jones paints Hope later, in 1896, she is assuming the same stance as before, but now there are bars behind her. Hope’s ankle is shackled. She’s in prison.
In his terrific book on the artist, Stephen Wildman indicates that Burne-Jones was mourning the death of his dear friend and collaborator William Morris at the time of this painting. This was a commissioned painting. In fact, Burne-Jones was supposed to paint another image for the prospective buyer, but after some difficulty Burne-Jones proposed to paint Hope instead.2
In the midst of his grief, Burne-Jones chose to focus on hope. He could have painted something else – in fact, he was supposed to paint something else – but he wanted to paint Hope instead.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these two versions of Hope by Burne-Jones. Hope sure looks different in the face of pain and grief. But she is still there. And she still has her face and hand raised toward the sky – toward God. And frankly, this last version of Hope feels more authentic. More honest. It isn’t neat and tidy. It’s messy. It’s truer to life, don’t you think?
Truer to the experience of the mama grieving her stillborn baby. Or her grown baby. Truer to the experience of the father who fears for his children’s safety in a world of guns and violence. Truer to the experience of the boy who couldn’t stop his sister from being trafficked into slavery. Truer to the experience of communities like Nairobi and Raqqa – as well as Paris and Beirut, just a few days ago – reeling and healing from the realities of terror.
Hope – if it is to have any integrity – must be able to endure the worst of circumstances. It must not dissolve or disappear in suffering and death.
And here is where I think Moltmann is helpful. Moltmann suggests that “[h]ope goes on its way through the midst of happiness and pain, because in the promises of God it can see a future…for the transient, the dying and the dead.”3 What is this future Moltmann is talking about? This future is “a new creation of all things by the God of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”4
Hope, because it has a future, must inform our present.
This might sound simple, friends, but it isn’t. Hope doesn’t erase the questions, the heartache, the messiness, and the uncertainty. But it can endure these things. And in our lived theology, we must make room for it to endure.
The more I’ve thought about this painting of Hope shackled and behind bars, the more grateful I am Edward-Jones painted it. It’s an image that calls out to hearts that are heavy. Hearts that long for a time when peace blankets the whole world – from the deep valleys, to the high plains, to the seas and the mountains, to the vibrant cities and the tucked-away villages. A time when justice stands watch at the doorsteps of the weak, the exploited, and the disenfranchised. A time when wisdom triumphs over hate. Because there is so much hate. Harbored in the hearts of humans. And on the internet – where people believe it is their right to spew vile words far and wide. And in groups around the world that breed terror and fear.
Until that time, I hold out for Hope. I’m waiting for her to be freed from her shackle. For her to be fully realized. How do we do this exactly? How do we hold out for Hope?
I think we look for the places where we see glimpses of Her. And if we look hard enough, we will see glimpses. Hope is in the voices of those who speak out against the violence that attempts to silence them. Hope is in the arms that embrace those who have fallen. Hope is the feet that run to protect the vulnerable and wounded. Hope is in the hands that make meals and open doors for those who have lost their homes.
And of course, we hold out for Hope by embodying her. By being those hands and feet that make way for God’s promise. We work hard now – all the while praying for the coming of the Sweet Savior who will set Hope free.
1 This question is found in the “Preface to the New Paperback Edition” of Theology of Hope (page 9).
2 This paragraph draws on the work of Stephen Wildman. If you are an art-history buff, check out his book on the artist: Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian Artist-Dreamer.
3 This quote is found on page 32 of the paperback edition of Theology of Hope. Emphasis mine.
4 This quote is found on page 33 of the paperback edition of Theology of Hope.