Thanksgiving is over. The leftovers are disposed of, the football scores in the record books, the Black Friday/Saturday sales over. The commercial hype of Christmas is in full swing. Technically it is not Christmas yet, at least not in the Christian church. The season that marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, and that began on Sunday, is Advent.
The observance of a season of penitence and waiting before Christmas dates back to the sixth century. The name Advent is from Latin, adventus, meaning “coming” and referring to the second coming of Christ. So the season both commemorates the historical birth of Christ and anticipates his return to earth to establish God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness.
Some readers may be familiar with the custom of lighting four candles on an Advent wreath, an additional one each Sunday of the season, until all four and sometimes a central Christ candle are lit on Christmas Eve. Each candle signifies one of the weeks of Advent, and in some traditions, each is also assigned a spiritual gift or virtue to be contemplated during that week. The first candle stands for hope; the second is for love; the third for joy; and the fourth, peace.
In keeping with the traditional theme of the first week of Advent, I’d like to share some thoughts about hope for your consideration this week. The dictionary defines hope as the feeling that what is wanted can be had, or that events will turn out for the best. Psychologists who have theorized about where hope comes from and how it works include Erik Erikson, a developmental theorist of the 1950s. According to Erikson, hope comes from a child’s experience of establishing a trusting relationship with a caregiver during the first year of life. If no such trusting relationship is established, the result is despair. Cognitive psychologists in the 1970s and 1980s offered techniques for reframing or re-interpreting events and conditions as a means of converting anxiety into hope. And most recently the field of positive psychology, founded by Martin Seligman in the 1990s, has suggested that people can achieve an outlook of optimism and hope for the future through thinking constructively about their past and cultivating their personal moral strengths. For me, each of these approaches falls a little short in capturing the essence of hope. They all seem to imply that hope is a proficiency that can be acquired and improved with practice. I believe that hope is a spiritual quality and a gift rather than a skill.
Christianity teaches that its hope is for God’s plan for his creation to be completed – that is, it is hope for the world as well as hope for individuals. Christian hope is founded in faith – a belief, both collective and individual, that Jesus came to earth to fulfill the ages-old promises of a just and righteous Savior-King (Messiah) in the line of King David (see Jeremiah 23:5-6; Isaiah 29:18-21; 35:5-10). Christian hope leads to a fullness and newness in the present life, and motivates sharing that hope with others, especially those without hope. And there are many among us, even in this land of plenty, whose hopes have dimmed or been extinguished altogether.
No doubt you know such people. Perhaps their hope for economic stability for their families has been dashed by prolonged un- or under-employment. Or they may have hoped for a bright future for their kids – a natural dream for most parents – only to be confronted with the heart-breaking realities of mental illness or addiction or both. Some may have created retirement plans for travel and leisure activities to be enjoyed with loved ones, only to have their emotional and physical energy as well as financial resources consumed by a debilitating illness. Most of us will have little difficulty thinking of people we know who experience these and other hope-crushing situations.
In the daily Morning Prayer service of the Episcopal-Anglican tradition we ask, “Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; nor the hope of the poor be taken away.” Of course “needy” and “poor” can refer to many difficult circumstances, not only financial. Just as God sustained the hope of ancient Israel for a just and righteous ruler through his messengers the prophets, so God today delivers the message of his continuing care, concern and compassion to a world without hope through his faithful followers. Each of us is called to restore hope, in our families and communities, at every level of engagement with our fellow citizens of the earth. In what ways can you offer hope in the interactions you will have with others this week?
Here are some additional Biblical references on hope: Job 11:13-20; Psalm 9; Psalm 33; Psalm 62:5-12; Psalm 65; Psalm 71; Psalm 130; Psalm 146; Psalm 147; Jeremiah 29:11-14; Lamentations 3:21-26; Matthew 12:15-21; Romans 5:1-8; 1 Peter 1:3-5