We Christians have the ultimate basis for hope
In my privileged time writing for this paper I’ve penned several articles on the season of Christmas, but never written a thing on Advent. This neglect is a problem – a first-world problem perhaps, but hardly an unusual one. Most people hardly know what Advent is, and even those of us who do don’t really have all much of an understanding of it.
There are all sorts of reasons for this, which would make an excellent basis for another fun-filled pop-psychoanalysis of the Western World, but that, thankfully, is not my aim today.
I’m more interested in what we as Catholics, as Irishmen, as humans, are missing out on when we whiz breezily – or vexedly – through Advent in our lunatic rush to Christmas Day. We miss chances to relax, to be with our families, to reflect, to pray. (This, by the way, is the origin of the bizarre phenomenon of people who are, wait for it, sick of Christmas. Sick of Christmas! The Catholic website ‘Busted Halo’ nails it: if you’re tired of Christmas by December 25, you’re doing it wrong.)
Most importantly though, we miss a fantastic chance to immerse ourselves in hope.
What the Dickens do I mean by this? The different seasons of the Church calendar each have a particular atmosphere, a particular set of virtues that they emphasise. Lent is repentance, Easter, joy, and Advent is hope. With its calendars, candles, and expectant hymns, Advent provides us with constant opportunities to practise anticipation, wonder, excitement – hope.
And we need the practice. Because two sad things have happened to the word ‘hope.’ First, there’s the tendency to collapse it into a cheesy buzzword that stands for something like “never mind that your home’s being repossessed, your father’s ill, and you’re having trouble with your marriage, the important thing is to stay cheerful”.
To hope is not to be a Pollyanna. Hope is to be open to the potential for redemption even in the most horrible situations.
Nelson Mandela, God rest him, understood hope. Nelson Mandela understood redemption – not just his apartheid-blighted country’s, but his own: this was a man who led a terrorist organisation in truth little different from the IRA, who served a 27 year prison sentence that could have left him even more bitter and vengeful. But instead, he chose to turn away from violence and embrace the men who had persecuted him, winning freedom for black South Africans without crushing the white minority. Who could have predicted that when he was first sentenced? But these mad, impossible things do happen. Stalin’s gulags were real, but so was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Slavery was real, but so was its abolition.
The other thing that happens to hope is that people end up so let down by the cheap, plastic version that they abandon the virtue entirely.
Pope Francis gets this. In Evangelii Gaudium he writes “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’. Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met.”
At World Youth Day in Rio, he urged the pilgrims “Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope! And not only that, but I say to us all: let us not rob others of hope, let us become bearers of hope!”
That’s our job in a nutshell. We Christians have the ultimate basis for hope, the knock-down, drag-out reason that pummels every other into the dust. We have Christ. We believe that the creator of the cosmos not only became one of us but died for us, touching every point in space-time and taking onto himself the consequence of every sin ever committed… and then rising again. He has conquered death, he has conquered entropy, and he has conquered evil.
That’s supposed to be our creed. But do we act like we really believe it? I usually don’t. Even as I write I am utterly failing to grasp the enormity of the concept. I mean, Christ has vanquished death, and I sometimes worry about biased newspapers, or the cultural influence of the X-Factor, or Enda Kenny! (Kids are better at this, by the way. They’re more inclined to view life as a fairytale filled with adventure, heartbreak, and an ultimate happy ending – which is to say, they are realists).
The more we are aware of the majesty of our own faith, the less likely we are to give in to discouragement or despair, and the more we’re able to share the joy we’ve found with the world.
So, at the beginning of our new Church year, let us stride boldly forth. Let us be Advent children. Let us be soldiers of hope.