This Advent is an interesting one because where, as in every year, it calls us to anticipate the coming of Christ as an event that accentuates "Hope," "Peace," "Joy," and "Love," this year's edition of the story comes at a time where many of us are struggling to feel any of those things. It can get pretty hard to write and teach about Hope, when everyone around you is feeling hopeless.
This year, it is easy to look at the world and see various crises like terrorism, refugees, and the rise of racist hate-based politics coming to a town near you. Where many of us grew up believing in the myth of the United States as a liberal democracy where such things were dying out — a place that provided hope to the rest of a world that struggled with them — we now know on no uncertain terms that such things can happen here, despite our best efforts. The sad truth is that we have always had pockets of hatred simmering under the facade of our progressive social fabric, often just one election away from erupting, but we worked to lessen their impact and hoped that our love, diligence, and prayers would eventually wear them down. And then came the year and the election where we didn't do enough. Recently, in discussing this with one of my African-American friends, he sadly chuckled and told me "now you know how my community has felt for my whole life."
But this is not about politics. People of good faith can come down on both sides of a political issue, after all, and our society has become increasingly less civil as we've retreated to echo chambers where people can make a lot of money falsifying news and telling us the lies we want to hear. After all, it is what we have become in the Information Age, and we will have to find some way to move forward in that world. This is about answering the question of the day: "How can we feel hope when things feel so hopeless?"
For many of us, Advent is a time of year when we get to anticipate the celebration of Christ's coming into the world. It's a time of spiritual and personal preparation that we tend to focus around themes to help us anticipate Jesus' birth. Given what we're observing at this time of year, have you ever stopped to whether we are getting the wrong idea? It's easy to see why we would. After all, much of this time is spent trying to find the "true meaning" of an increasingly secular holiday that we laid on top of the Roman Saturnalia - way back when - and have now turned over to a man in a red suit and beard who brings us goodies, shows up at parties, and gives our families a reason to draw closer for a little while. We all carry some precious - or painful, or both - memories of Christmases past and the wonderful things we exchanged; movies we watched; songs we sang; people we tried to help; and other things. What about Advent: that season of preparation and anticipation? When did we go from celebrating Jesus' coming by preparing in a thematic way to acknowledging that Jesus' arrival was just another item in the "sack of goodies" that God is supposed to bring us, which we would celebrate by lighting some candles? Maybe such things aren't "gifts," after all, but tasks that we should attend to as a part of our preparation.
So...".Hope." "Come thou long expected Jesus..." "The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light." These are wonderful things to say, but are they things that we're only supposed to feel, or are they calling us toward an important task? I'll go out on this limb a little more: Hope is something that we're supposed to be providing this season instead of a ray of sunlight in which we get to bask. It's something that we are supposed to be doing in preparation for the symbolic arrival of the One who, at the bottom of it all, carries all of our hopes. If we are looking to be agents of the Jesus Christ for whose coming we are preparing, hoping and working to provide hope to others is part of our job description. Even if we're not feeling it, we need to actively look for it and provide it for others as well as we can. We don't have the option of denying our own hopes and perpetuating hopelessness. Feel anything you want, but don't let that get in the way of doing something Jesus has called you to do. If our stock of Hope is running low, let's fill it!
I remember a youth group session from long ago, where we were talking about how to better project Christ to the world and, instead of being mopey all the time, help people understand that our faith provides us with an ability to move forward during bad times. One of my more pragmatic youth told the rest of the group that she had a rather straightforward way of doing things. "I just decide every morning before I get up to be a happy person and I work to stick with it throughout the day." As we age, we figure out that emotions might not be so easily controlled and that feelings might come upon us whether we wish to have them or not, but I liked the fact that she brought intent to her interactions with others. Perhaps this is how we need to start our Advent: viewing Hope as a verb - as something that we are going to spend serious time doing and working to spread instead of an emotion that we want, or even expect, to possess and feel. Yes, we should pray for hope and anticipate its arrival, but I tend to think that the best prayers are the ones that you make by working to ensure something happens. This is not going to make our problems, concerns, fears, and other negative emotions vanish overnight. Jesus' coming did not make all our the world's problems magically evaporate, either. Still, we have to start somewhere, and where better than in our preparations for this year's observance of the light that shines in our world's darkness?