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On Hope and Ben-Hur’s Greatest Scene

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It seems as if hope is taking a beating of late. From national politics here at home, to Christian genocide in the middle east, to internecine fighting among Catholics, there has been an onslaught of conflict and tragedy which could lead some to despair. Ultimately, however, the person of faith should never despair, or wonder where they are to find hope amidst the turbulent times we live. For hope is not an abstract, but rather it is a person: Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In his nineteenth century classic, The Catechism Explained: An Exhaustive Explanation of the Catholic Religion, Fr. Francis Spirago reminds us of the very essence of Christian hope. As he notes:

Christian hope is based on faith, for we hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises because we believe that God is infinitely true, infinitely powerful, and infinitely good, and that Christ has merited all for us.

Fr. Spirago points out to us that the Christian does not rely on his own powers, nor that of other men, or even earthly treasures, but rather only God. However, “Christian hope is a gift from God, and we attain to this hope only by sanctifying grace.”

Pope St. Gregory the Great once said:

Before sinning fear God’s justice; after sinning trust in His mercy.

Of course, we must never presume God’s mercy, continuing in our sin with the (false) belief the we can never be condemned. As Fr. Spirago instructs:

Confidence in God and fear of God must ever be equally present in us. It is wrong that there should be only fear of God without trust in Him, for this is despair. It is also wrong that there should be no fear at all; if a man thinks his salvation already secure he sins by presumption.

Father reminds us, however, that the Christian “may not despair, because God’s mercy is infinite, and God’s help is nearest when the need is greatest.”

Realizing this, I am reminded of (what is for me) the single greatest moment in possibly the greatest movie ever made: Ben-Hur (MGM, 1959).

Despairing, having lost his princely status and now marching in the desert toward a life as a galley slave, Judah Ben-Hur (in an Academy Award winning performance by Charlton Heston) loses all hope and collapses after a Roman guard denies him water. In his moment of hopelessness, he does all that one can do: he asks God to help him. It is then, completely humbled and ready to die, that he gives himself to God…and sees the face of Christ.

Please note at the 0:51 second mark of the clip when the brilliant director William Wyler pays homage to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (from the Sistine Chapel) as Ben-Hur’s fingers touch those of Christ. A beautiful visual reminder that ultimately our hope is found in Christ, who “makes all things new.”

Originally published on April 11, 2016

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