“Hope” is such a common word that we don’t notice when it’s said. If you listen to everyday speech, you will hear dozens of hopes. We describe our desires for events we can’t control: “I hope my package arrives in time,” or “I hope there isn’t a quiz today.” We express our goals in the face of our uncertainty of attaining them: “I hope I can resolve the conflict with my boss,” or “I hope this paper is good enough for at least a B+.” These specific hopes are more like wishes, or even magical thinking. We come closer to hope’s deeper meaning when we omit the specific outcome: “I’m hoping for the best,” or even “All I can do is hope.”
Many Christians consider this time the season of Hope: Advent, the start of the liturgical year. “Advent” means the approach or arrival of something important and long awaited. This season is grounded in the intense longing and faith of the Hebrew people in the coming of a Messiah. No one knew what to expect. Would the Messiah be a moral leader, a military or spiritual one? How would the world be transformed? The Hebrew scriptures mix faith and anticipation with awe and even fear. Is it safe to draw close to the Creator of all? Isn’t it my heart’s deep desire?
Christians, although believing that the Messiah already came into the world, still need this season of Advent hope to reignite our longing to live in the transformed world. Unlike our little-h hopes, Hope is something strong and vigorous that animates our actions and carries us through life’s struggles. We recognize its power when we read Anne Frank’s words, written while hiding from the Nazis: “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
Hope is one of the theological virtues, not a feeling or emotion. Virtues are firm dispositions to do good, habits of thought and action built up through long practice. The season of Advent is the gym in which we strengthen our Hope muscles, the lab where we experiment with Hope in new settings. We take an honest look at our world and ourselves. We recognize systems of injustice and inequality. We see human frailty – dishonesty, greed, lethargy – even in ourselves and those we love. Advent offers the healing power of stories of goodness and peace. It asks us to abandon our comfortable routines, to go out – yes, now – to help someone in need. Advent calls us to silence and prayer where we encounter the source of all that is true, good, and beautiful.
In stories there is often a supporting character who, at the crucial moment, spurs the main character to one last effort. “There is some good in this world,” says Samwise Gamgee to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, “and it’s worth fighting for.” That is Hope’s voice, sustaining and strengthening Love. May you listen carefully and hear the voice of Hope this Advent Season.
Originally published in The Cable, the student newspaper of The College of St. Scholastica, on Dec. 2, 2016.