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1/29/17 Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Fr. Reggie

One theme unified all of Pope Benedict XVI's homilies and speeches since the publication of his last encyclical, "Saved by Hope."

He had been talking to us, his spiritual children in Christ, and also to the rest of the world, insistently about one thing: hope. Hope is a supernatural virtue. That means that when we were baptized, when God poured his grace into our soul, he also planted there the seed of hope.

And like all virtues, whether the seed takes rootgrows, and bears fruit depends on us. Virtues are like talents: they are given to us in potential, and it is up to us to develop them, through disciplined practice. Some people are gifted with a talent for music, but unless they study and practice, the talent will not reach its full potential. Some people are gifted with a talent for sports, but unless they study and practice, that talent cannot reach its full potential.

As Christians, we have all been gifted with the virtue of hope, along with faith and Christian love, or charity.

But unless we put these virtues into action, they cannot reach their full potential, and if they don't reach their full potential, we will never really grow up as Christians.

Since the Pope has spoken about this virtue so insistently, it would be good for us to give ourselves a check-up on it, to see why this virtue is so important, and how well-developed it is in our lives, and what we can do to make it grow.

First, let's look at what hope really is.

We have just listened to the beginning of Jesus' first homily. In those few verses, he sums up all his teaching on how to live life to the full.

Each one of the eight Beatitudes is phrased in the same way, a very curious way.

First Jesus says, "Blessed are..." and then he names a specific type of suffering.

The first thing to note in this construction is the word "Blessed" [pronounced in two syllables - BLESS -ehd]. This is one of the most important words in the Bible. It is always used to refer to the fullness of life that comes only to those who follow God. That word comes from the name of an island that the ancient Greeks considered to be a perfect paradise. The people who lived on that island were completely self-sufficient. They had no need to depend on outside sources for their prosperity, since the island was so perfectly situated and endowed.

And this is the impression that the word "blessed" should give us: the kind of happiness that is so strong and stable that not even the storms and sufferings of life in the world can shake it; the deep, interior sense of joy and meaning that we all long to experience, because we are made to experience.

But the amazing thing about these Beatitudes, the ones Jesus teaches, is where they say this perfect blessedness can be found. They say that we can experience it on earth - each time, Jesus says, "blessed ARE..."But that experience can only come if our hearts are set on heaven, on Christ's Kingdom, on friendship with God. If we want anything else more than that - food, wealth, fame, comfort, power, praise - if we set our hearts on those things, we will not experience the blessedness that Christ wants to give us. But as soon as we accept the hard reality that earth will never be heaven, that nothing on earth can fulfill our heart's desire completely, that we will always experience limitations like hunger, humiliation, sorrow, temptation, and injustice - in other words, as soon as we accept fully that this life is a journey to a fuller life, then we will begin to experience that fuller life, in part, even here and now, along the journey. And this is exactly what we mean by the Christian virtue of hope: the assurance that if we stay united to Christ here on earth, we will experience fulfillment, blessedness, more and more, until we are filled completely in heaven.

Now that we have a clearer idea of what Christian hope really is, we can understand how crucial it is for us to develop this virtue.

Since all of us desire fulfillment more than we desire anything else - that's how God made us - if we aren't seeking it in the right place, we can't help seeking it in the wrong place.

But if we look for blessedness in the wrong place, are lives will fall apart, sooner or later.

Hope is our compass: if we don't use it, we will get lost, fall off a cliff, get eaten by wild animals, or starve to death - spiritually speaking.

Hope is our anchor: without it, we will be tossed into the rocks by life's storms and end up shipwrecked.

Hope is like magnetism.  We are like a piece of metal, and the magnet is blessedness, which is God, the source of all blessings. When the piece of metal is far away from the magnet, it experiences only a slight pull, only a slight degree of blessedness. But the closer the piece of the metal comes to the magnet, the stronger the pull, the more intense the experience of blessedness. Finally, the metal is drawn into direct contact with the magnet - the perfection of blessedness, in heaven.

The better we know and follow Christ, our magnet, the more fully we experience life as he created it to be experienced.

What can we do to grow in this life-changing virtue? The whole Bible is an answer to this question. All the teachings of the Church are an answer to this question. The entire life of a Christian is really an exercise of the virtue of hope. And the more we exercise it, the more it grows.

We exercise hope when we follow the commandments: as Zephaniah says in the First Reading: "They shall do no wrong and speak no lies." This exercises hope because it usually involves renouncing a desire for gratification now in order to continue forward on the path that leads to true gratification later, the path of following Christ. Sometimes telling a lie, cooking the account books, or covering up a dishonest deed would seem to be a shortcut to blessedness. But the virtue of hope shouts in our conscience: "Blessedness comes from closeness to God, not from earthly goods." When we listen to that voice, doing the right thing even when it hurts, we are exercising hope.

We also exercise hope when we take our spiritual life seriously. Again the Prophet Zephaniah puts it well: "Seek the Lord... seek justice, seek humility." When we try to learn to pray better, to study our faith, to live the sacraments more and more deeply - all of this exercises the virtue of hope, because it takes effort, and the results don't always come right away; it's a long-term investment.

Today the Church has reminded us of one of the most precious gifts we received at our baptism: the virtue of hope.

When Jesus comes to us again in Holy Communion, he will nourish that virtue, as sunlight nourishes a garden.

When he does, let's talk to him about what we can do this week, on our part, to help that virtue grow, to tend to the garden of our soul.

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