As I write, the homelessness crisis has become particularly visible in the tent city across from the Confederation Building, and Israel and Palestine are in the midst of a devastating war. As you read, Christmas decorations will be going up and Christmas shopping will be under way. As I write, I am coming to terms with the fact that after twenty-one years of ministry, my Church has no job for me. As you read, I will be preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth by living through the season of Advent: the season of hope.
Hope tends to get a bad name these days, and it’s tempting to see any of those situations as hopeless ones. Around the beginning of the pandemic, the provincial Health Minister said that “Hope is a girl’s name, not a strategy.” I understood the point he was trying to make, but I winced every time I heard it. It’s the perfect example of how easy it is to erase and trivialise the power of hope.
Hope, in isolation, isn’t a solution to a crisis any more than mere thoughts and prayers constitute a response. However, hope is what sustains our commitment to strategies and solutions, even when circumstances appear most dire. It isn’t the same as optimism, but it shields us from sinking into despair and anxiety.
Pessimism is a bleak and cynical perspective that sees everything going wrong and expects things to worsen further, rendering hope futile and foolish. This attitude isn’t difficult to find in the Church and the world around us, eroding our capacity to share the good news of the Gospel. Optimism, on the other hand, is a somewhat naive belief that everything will ultimately turn out for the best. In this worldview, hope still seems pointless because everything will supposedly be fine in the end. However, this form of optimism can also breed privilege and denial if we assume that “everything’s fine” and simply reassure those who are suffering that it will all work out eventually.
In contrast, hope acknowledges the sin and brokenness in the world, but rages against them. It places trust in the belief that things will improve while demonstrating that trust through tangible actions aimed at paving the way for a better future. Hope is firmly rooted in the Bible’s promises that in the kingdom of God there will be no more mourning, crying, or pain, for ‘the first things [will] have passed away,’ (Revelation 21.4) but it never forgets those who suffer and cry out ‘How long?’ (Revelation 6.10). Hope reminds us that the things we fight for are far more important than the things we fight against. In responding to human need, fighting against injustice, or caring for creation, hope never assumes that these actions alone could ever fix the brokenness of the world, but knows that they can bring hope to others, who can take up the fight themselves.
In short, hope comes from a trust that God really is in control of the world, and cares about us enough to get personally involved in our lives. That’s the message of Christmas, which goes much deeper than “sleeping in heavenly peace.” It’s a reminder that the Reign of God is breaking into this world in surprising ways: in a child born into poverty; in an invitation to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked; in a fierce determination not to repay evil with evil, but to overcome it with good. These are the themes we reflect on during Advent, themes that keep us from being satisfied with Christmas as a single day, themes that keep Christmas for its whole twelve days, into a new year and new resolve to be part of the work of building up God’s Kingdom.