“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that… we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
Advent is the preeminent season of hope, a time when we look forward to and anticipate something that still lies ahead. Perhaps it’s the Christmas feast that we’re preparing for: the celebration of Christ’s first coming, the promise of a new world and a new reality breaking into this one. That’s a cause for hope.
But if we define hope as faith that is oriented to the future, toward what we are looking out for and expecting but that has not yet arrived, then we’ll need to broaden our range. Advent is the season in which the Church looks for the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time, an event that’s still over the horizon. In our time we live in hope for a kingdom that is still to come.
According to the Prayer of St. Francis, hope is the remedy for despair. “Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope…” Hope imagines a future still ahead where despair cannot make one out, or at least not one worth living. Despair cannot find a way forward, and comes to a full stop. Or maybe despair is the brick wall we ourselves run into. Hope, on the contrary, springs from the conviction that where we can’t find a way forward, God himself will supply the path.
Hope is different from optimism. You know, I think optimism is a wholly commendable thing: that is, expecting things to get better, looking for good things to come. Here’s the difference: optimism doesn’t long survive the wreckage of its expectations, while hope is steadfast in the face of adversity. Hope continues to hope, in spite of what happens.
When you are up against despair, you want to send in hope, not its lightweight cousin optimism. Despair will eat optimism for breakfast, every time. Another way of saying this is that optimism is speculative, while hope is fully grounded in reality. It’s robust enough to carry on. It doesn’t depend on things unfolding as we optimistically suppose they will. Come what may, whatever the case, hope that is hope will endure.
In ancient Israel, in a time of desperate need, with many temptations to despair, God sent prophets to kindle hope amongst the People. The land was ravaged by war, and they were surrounded by enemies. Social injustice was manifest, and the People themselves were divided. In their sinfulness, it seemed that God himself was arrayed against them. All optimism was swept away. In spite of this, the prophets announced a new day, and a new hope.
In our second reading this morning, St. Paul points to the ministry of these prophets, precisely in terms of hope. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that… we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The prophetic word, Paul suggests, was not only addressed to the people of their day, but also to ours. It’s a word of hope spoken in the past that has immediate relevance for the present. There is a pattern here, for all times, including our own.
What breaks through the wall of despair, however, is not the prophetic word of hope, but its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Hope, for Christians, is rooted in specific events; another way it differs from optimism. It looks to the future, to what lies ahead, for sure, but the promise is already present, revealed in the pattern of what God has already done in raising Jesus Christ from the dead. We live in a time of hope, between what God has done and what he will do to remake the world when Christ comes again in glory.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead creates a future where there was none before. God himself has supplied the path forward just when we were running into the brick wall of our own despair.. What comes out of the empty tomb is the possibility of new life for those who have faith in him. The dead end of despair is overturned by new possibilities that go beyond our own capacity to imagine them, much less make them real.
Advent is the season of hope. The prophets are pointing the way. God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ. He will come again in glory at the end of time to establish his kingdom. Despair is on the run! Meanwhile we live in hope, looking out for and expecting what still lies ahead.