In the 2nd reading, St Paul says that what was written in the past in Scripture (our Old Testament) was written “that we might have hope”. The stories and the prophecies are there so we might have hope – and persevere. We can add: Advent is here so we might have hope. When Christ is born, when there is a baby in the crib, it’s faith that’s asked of us: this baby is Emmanuel. But in Advent it’s hope. And all life is Advent. The whole Christian life is one of hopeful waiting, and so is the whole Church’s life: “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Every Mass, every Eucharist is a cry for the Kingdom to come.
Faith, hope and charity – we know this trio, the theological virtues. They are given us by the Holy Spirit when we are baptised. They are strengthened and energised when we are confirmed. They are fed by the Sacrament of the Eucharist. They are repaired by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They connect us to God, each perhaps to a different aspect of God. Faith connects us to his Truth, Charity to his Beauty, and Hope to his Goodness. We believe in what’s true, we love what’s beautiful and we hope for what is good. What we ultimately hope for, says St Thomas Aquinas, is “God’s omnipotence coming to our aid”, the One who is Good coming to us with the good.
Advent is given us “so we might have hope”. The writings of Isaiah and the other prophets are given us so we might have hope: the firm expectation of good things. John the Baptist, fierce as he sounds, is sent to give hope. Mary, a teenage girl, is carrying the hope of Israel and of the world, “expecting” as we say. An old feast on the 18th of December, a week before Christmas, focussed on Mary’s expecting. In Advent, the Holy Spirit too is at work arousing our sluggish or misplaced hope.
What is hope? A mysterious thing, a fragile thing and a powerful thing. It can grow when things are bad. It’s what gets us up in the morning and keeps us going. It’s like a hidden spring of fresh water. It’s like spring after winter, the first primroses and crocuses, a “few green ears”. One poet calls it a telescope; it looks beyond the immediate. Another poet compares Faith to a loyal, rather stately middle-aged wife, and Charity to a large, kind, welcoming mother. But Hope, he says, is like a little girl, skipping along, and actually drawing everything with her. Think of pregnant Mary.
In the midst of a Scottish winter, with political uncertainty and global insecurity or job insecurity or climate fears, with so much sadness around, mental illness, emptiness and loss of meaning, so much quiet or noisy desperation, Advent enters, offering hope. Amid the difficulties besetting the Church, the sense of shame and confusion, disappointment in the institution, loss of trust (even of the Pope), Lady Advent says, Here’s a Hope for you. It’s what the New Testament calls a “good hope”, a “blessed hope”, a “better hope”.
Here’s an interesting thing. In the Gospels, Jesus does not often speak directly of hope. The call is more, “Repent and believe.” “Go, your faith has saved you.” Thanks to the prophets, the Jews were already people of hope. The message to them was: this Jesus is your hoped-for Messiah. But, when after Pentecost, the Gospel began to move into pagan territory, to Asia Minor (Turkey), to Greece and beyond (Europe), the apostles realised they were among people without hope, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12) says St Paul. And so there was a shift in emphasis: they presented the faith more and more as a hope. And St Peter, in his 1st Letter, expects pagans to be asking Christians for an “account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). In other words: “You guys, where do you get this hope from? This stuff about eternal life and resurrection? You’ve got something different.”
Advent asks us to revive our hope, refocus it, put it in order, widen and deepen it. Away with hopelessness or diminished or misguided hope. Don’t ask politicians for what they can’t give. Don’t ask human relationships, precious as they are, for what they can’t give. Don’t worship idols. Listen to the prophets, look up, look at the stars. Use your telescope. Hidden in the world and one day destined to break cover, there is and there will be healing and justice, the reconciliation of man and nature, peace among men, the closeness of God, prayer answered, a new heaven and a new earth. Christ has come, Christ is risen. Sin can be forgiven, heaven is opened. The Kingdom of God is at hand. In the midst of our succession of days and nights, another Day is rising. So, meanwhile, we can stick at it, be patient, hang on in there, put up with ourselves and one another, keep praying and not lose heart. This is the pedagogy of Advent, the school of hope. But it has still more to teacher. The hope of Christians isn’t a vague optimism. Nor is it just hope or hopes for. It’s hope in. It is hope in God. It is hope in unlimited goodness, in someone completely on our side, wholly reliable, refuge and rock, able to supply our every need, little or great, in time and eternity, counting the hairs of our head, able to fill every nook and cranny and hidden crevice of our poor hearts, waiting to wipe away every tear and right every wrong. Our hope is Someone. Someone who comes. Comes in Advent and always.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 8 December 2019)