Christmas Eve, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

“[We became] heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7).

Christmas is a time for hope: not only in the normal course of things, as we celebrate the birth of the Savior, but particularly this year, when hope is at a premium, when it’s scarce, when we must seek it out. Hope can be defined as faith, trust in God, that is oriented toward the future. As we turn the corner of the year this Christmas, we peer into the future, and look for signs of hope.

There are a number of such signs, of things we anticipate ahead. Foremost among them, perhaps, is a vaccine that promises an eventual end to the pandemic (thanks be to God). At the same time, there are discouraging signs (among them that word “eventual”); signs that we are all too familiar with as we watch the news from around the world, and look around us in our communities. Still, in the face of all this, Christmas is a time for hope, no matter how rare that hope may seem.

“Hope” is practically the last word in our reading this evening, from St. Paul’s Letter to Titus. Here in a brief passage the Apostle sketches the genealogy of Christian hope; where it comes from: rooted in baptism, “through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5), as he says. This rebirth and renewal depend on “the goodness and lovingkindness of God” (Tit. 3:4). We’re saved by his mercy, justified by his grace, as St. Paul says. Our renewal comes through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the ground of our hope; whose birth brings us in spirit to Bethlehem.

There’s a difference between our hope as Christians, and our anticipation of the future. I’m indebted to my former teacher Oliver O’Donovan for pointing this out to his readers in his book from a few years ago (Self, World, and Time). Anticipation of the future is founded on our understanding of the present, and can generate either desire or fear. We anticipate what’s ahead; we peer joyfully or anxiously into the future; yet the future cannot be foreseen completely and with assurance, because it still lies ahead.

For O’Donovan, this gap between the present moment in which we live, and the future that lies immediately before us, creates space for our own action. In order to be actors, rather than bystanders, in the world, we have to lean into an unknown future. We have to discern the signs of the times, and no one does that with full knowledge of what lies ahead. We have to discern, without knowing with certainty, and then chart a course. We must do this without being either paralyzed or misled by our imaginations. As O’Donovan says, “There are hopeless desires, as there are paralyzing fears, which never point a way to action.” We have to learn how to act.

Now here is the main point: mere anticipation of the future, whether hopeful or fearful, is not hope. Hope is not optimism, as welcome as optimism may be in some situations. But optimism that is un-tempered by realism can be deceptive. If you are hopeful because the signs are encouraging, then just wait around, because you have handed over hostages to an unknown future. Your most optimistic take on events around you in the present can be dashed to pieces in the next instant. The uncertain nature of the world is a fact, one not only accessible to specialists or theologians, but to anyone: those who dabble in day-trading, for instance, or those who look too intently at polling data. Any of us can be surprised.

Hope is something different, thank God. As St. Paul says in Romans, “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Rom. 8:24). We human beings are capable of generating much in the way of anticipation, of seeing many worlds lying ahead in the future, some of them day dreams and some of them nightmares, but none of these is grounds for either hope or despair. Our hope lies elsewhere, in a vision whose substance cannot be seen.

That hope has a lineage that is grounded in Jesus Christ. As the Apostle says in our reading, we are heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). Jesus’ death and resurrection, and his coming again, have made us his heirs; they shape and form the future that lies just over the horizon of vision. This future is out of our hands. It’s God’s future. We place our hope in Christ.

“I hope for what I cannot anticipate, for deep changes in the world which can come about when the lion lies down with the lamb”: again, that’s O’Donovan, conjuring with the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom. God refuses to be limited by merely hopeful expectations. He has prepared for us something that exceeds the human grasp.

It is this knowledge, of the hope that exceeds our vision and expectations, that allows us to discern and to act now. God takes all our striving, whatever it’s proximate result, and makes sense of it on the judgment day. Our ultimate future does not depend on us, on our imagination or anticipation, but the immediate future right before us calls for our faithful action in the moment. Now is the time for action, and it’s rooted in our hope.

Christmas is a time for hope; hope for a future that is yet to be written; hope for a future that still lies over the horizon. That hope, founded on Jesus Christ, is birthed in Bethlehem, as faithful folk gather and remember. Tonight, we come to the creche and look back into the past, and then forward into the future that God has prepared for us. We worship and pray tonight, grateful for mercy and grace, confident in what the future holds for us.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee