As we journey towards Christmas through Advent, I must confess it is one of my favorite liturgical seasons. There is something about Advent that speaks to my soul. For anyone who has ever been to a season of waiting, this is the season for you. Who among us hasn’t tapped our feet impatiently at God’s plans sometimes? Advent remembers exactly this- the years spent by Israel waiting on a promise from God, that seemed like it would never come. Imagine the frustration and heartbroken state of a people who spent so long waiting on the promised messiah. How must it have felt to try and hold out hope from generation to generation? Did they plead with the Lord to break his silence, in unending tears? Did they allow their hearts to delight in this messiah Christ who made the foretold signs come true and yet died brutally, crushing all their hopes again? How many do you think stuck it out till the end, and came face to face with their resurrected messiah, to see their hope realized?
We live in a time that seems rife with a pervading sense of despair. There seem to be so many conversations discussing how far the world has fallen or, how far gone our youngest generations may be, how technology and politics is turning us against each other, global warming, gender inequalities, wealth gaps and so on and so forth. Every new invention or initiative that comes about is preached as the thing that will save mankind, and when it inevitably reveals itself to not solve every problem of human existence and as being just another ‘thing’, we’re crushed. ‘We thought this would solve it’, we say to each other, ‘how could people be so blind, how can they not see/understand?’. And we sigh and shake our heads in resignation.
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), talks about the virtue of hope, and says “a distinguishing mark of Christians is the fact that they have a future” and though they may not know exactly what the future holds, they know that “their life will not end in emptiness”. In Heb 6:18 St. Paul reminds us that “the hope set before us…(is) a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul”. We are followers of Christ, and in calling ourselves so, we put our faith and our hope in a God who is good, who is a good Father, who delights in his children and desires to give us good gifts and, who gave his own life in exchange for our souls. The gods of other religions contrastingly, get jealous, compete with each other and with humans, do whatever they see fit (regardless of what it does to the human world) and think really only of themselves and their own benefit. It makes sense then when those who believe in these other gods or in nothing, look at life as a rat race, pitting every man for himself, and every man responsible for his lot in life and lifting himself out of the mire and sees the world as altogether bleak, life as a burden and death as a tragedy. But how do we live? Do we live as people who believe our God is Yahweh, the good Father? Or do we live as Christians in name, and orphaned idolaters in practice? In which God do our actions reveal our hope lies in?
Now you may ask, why do we even need hope? St Augustine gives us an idea when he says, “The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the Gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be encouraged, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved”. In short, there is work to be done, and we must, as the body of Christ, get to it! If you think about St Augustine’s list, you will see that you have met all these people in your life- this is the world around us, and it needs hope, it needs joy, it needs life, it needs Christ. Okay so we want to do the work, we want to be people of hope, but how? As with all things, it begins with prayer.
The encyclical, Spe Salvi, points out how Saint Augustine describes “the intimate relationship between prayer and hope. He defines prayer as an exercise of desire. Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. “By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]”.” That’s exactly right, isn’t it? We were made for greatness and to live lives that are extraordinary, but most of us can’t even imagine that. We’re afraid of exhaustion, lack of time, lack of resources, talents etc. So yes, our hearts must be stretched. Spe Salvi goes on to say, “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined…. through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others”.
This is true prayer, Spe Salvi explains, when we pray properly, we are internally purified so that our hearts not only become open to God, but to others as well. We also learn what we can truly ask of God in prayer- “We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meagre, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them…. Failure to recognize my guilt, the illusion of my innocence, does not justify me and does not save me, because I am culpable for the numbness of my conscience and my incapacity to recognize the evil in me for what it is”. In opening ourselves to be purified by God in prayer, we continue to grow in openness to God, are stretched in desire and hope- not just for ourselves, but for others as well.
Spe Salvi points out that all serious and upright work and action, is ‘hope in action’. We act towards an end/goal because we hope in the possibility of a different future or accomplishing something we already hoped for. This hope has to see past current brokenness or state of things, towards something better. To see past ourselves/others, our/their capabilities, what we think can/cannot be done in the world, we must look and learn from our God who broke norms and toppled the world on its head, when he came into the world and lived as a human. We must learn to “open ourselves and the world and allow God to enter: we can open ourselves to truth, to love, to what is good”. It is such a hope that allows us to be courageous and virtuous in all circumstances of life, and thus inspire others to do the same and make a change that ripples out through society, city, nation and the world.
Even in the face of evil and suffering, it is hope that allows us to stand on the side of the good and virtuous. All those people during the reign of Nazi Germany, who snuck Jews out of the country and hid them in their homes, did so because they hoped. They hoped in a world where things would be different someday, or for a better life for each person they helped. If they had given in to despair and resignation to the world, imagine how many souls would have been lost! If suffering is the greatest deterrent to your hope, and if you desire to hope but find only obstacles in your path, it may be the opportune moment to unite yourself with Christ on the cross. To learn from his tender heart, how to hope in the darkest of nights. Our Lord who spoke forgiveness and mercy from the cross, for those who were taunting him, did not do it lightly. He has felt your pain, he can meet you there and walk you through the night into glory.
Perhaps you may think we have walked a long way from the joy of Christmas, in our discussion of Advent and hope. But I would disagree. It is when we refine and purify the deep, dark spaces of despair in our hearts and minds, and acknowledge the hopelessness there during Advent, that our vessels are open to understand and fully receive the true joy of Christmas. For what a delightful surprise it is, that just when we think there is no justifiable answer to our hope, God himself comes to us as a little babe, to fulfill all our longings and desires. What heart wouldn’t melt at the sight of the Christ child, full of promise and beautiful hope, after so many nights spent in the valley of tears? Advent is tough, it is a time to refine our own hearts and strengthen the muscle of hope in our lives. It is a time to sing again and again “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears” while bringing to the Lord all the areas of our lives that we have hardened our hearts against hoping in. It is a time to look expectantly at the Lord and allow Him to meet us where we are, and delight and surprise us with newness where we thought nothing could be done. The same Lord who said “Behold, I make all things new” (Is 43:19, Rev 21:5), says it to us again and again in the twinkling eyes of the Christ child.
If you want help, there is no better sojourner for this journey of Advent than Mary, the Star of Hope. She too journeyed through Advent, a pregnant teen girl, her marriage hanging in the balance and her life as well, yet somehow able to say yes to the angel, and sing the Magnificat in persistent joy. Mary who watched the passion of her son and received his offering of the world to her motherhood, and incorporated it in such hopeful resolve, as to walk the first way of the cross and to encourage the apostles to be unafraid at Pentecost. If our Mother could do it, then we can be confident that she will walk with us and show us the way as well. The Star of the Sea will surely be our comfort and light in the tumultuous chaos of our lives and our world, and will bring us to the shores of the heavenly bosom of God, the fulfillment of all our hopes and desires. Happy Advent everyone, and may this Christmas be a true delight to your wearied souls and through us, a beacon of hope for the wearied world.