How’s the Advent stillness going?
I have to say, it’s been going surprisingly well on my end.
I’ve tried my best to embrace the spirit of Advent, the brooding and the quiet anticipation, and now, with the 4th Sunday of Advent upon us, the anticipation is almost over and the grand event — the celebration of Jesus’ birth — is upon us. Hooray!
[This is an unusual overlap, the 4th Sunday of Advent falling on Christmas Eve. The Episcopal News Service did a story this week on how churches are handling the scheduling conflict, trying to meet everyone’s Advent and Christmas Eve needs without working the clergy to the point of irreversible exhaustion. The article yielded this wonderful quote: “It’s the Episcopal Church. Everything we do leads to debate,” said the Rev. Keith Voets, a New York City priest who helps moderate a Facebook discussion group on Episcopal liturgy.” Nicely said, Fr. Voets. It’s what makes us great.]
Having made it almost all the way through a peaceful, reflective Advent, I’ve started thinking about Christmas, and what it is, exactly, that we’re celebrating on Christmas Day.
Obviously we’re celebrating divine love made human when we celebrate the baby in the manger. We’re all celebrating what’s to come — the ministries and teachings and healings in the life of the adult Jesus, as well as the sacrifice that Jesus would eventually make on our behalf.
But that’s a lot to express, and of course, what would eventually happen in the life and death of Jesus wasn’t known to anyone but God at the moment of Jesus’ birth.
And so I began to wonder, in the wee hours of last night, (thank you, insomnia!), what the common denominator might be between all those things — the divine love made human, the life and teachings, the sacrifice — that would allow us to distill the Christmas celebration down to one word or sentiment?
What is it we’re really worshipping, and singing about, and celebrating? What is it that the baby Jesus represents, that keeps millions of people around the world celebrating, year after year?
I kept circling back to one thought: We’re celebrating the arrival, and renewal, of HOPE. I’ve written a lot about the importance of hope, as well as the difference between optimism and hope, which are often, mistakenly, used interchangeably.
I think Dr. Jerome Groopman, author of The Anatomy of Hope, summed up the difference very well in an interview with NPR. He said,
“An optimist says everything is going to turn out just fine… But in fact we know that things often don’t turn out just fine.
Hope is different. Hope is clear-eyed, it has no illusions. It sees all the difficulties, all the problems, in a very realistic way…and then, through those troubles, through those problems, it sees a possible path to a better future.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu also draws a distinction between optimism and hope. In 2009, he was interviewed by a man named Laurence Shorter, who was writing a book called The Optimist: One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life.
Shorter was certain that Bishop Tutu would share his outlook and worldview, but when he introduced himself to Tutu as an optimist, the Bishop’s response was this: “I’m not an optimist. I am hopeful. Optimism can turn far too quickly into pessimism if conditions don’t go well. Hope… is different!”
Hope is different. It is what allows us to be able to put disappointment behind us, and to believe – to really believe — in the promise of a new beginning. Hope is the certainty that things will not always be as they are now. Hope is the knowledge that, despite the darkness we may find ourselves in currently, the light is always out there, shimmering on the horizon.
The arrival of Jesus into the world was hope made flesh. It was a possible path to a better future in the guise of a baby; a baby born under less-than-ideal circumstances, in a world that seemed, at times, very dark indeed.
And so, all these years later, we’re still waiting, still pushing forward, still searching out the possible path to a better future.
As we celebrate Christmas, and the arrival of God’s love for us in the form of a human baby, we also, and perhaps most importantly, celebrate a renewal of hope. Hope that allows us to once again believe that lux in tenebris lucent — that somewhere out there, a light shines in the darkness.
So my wish for everyone is that hope takes up residence in your life this year, allowing you to see a possible path to a better future in every instance of darkness you encounter. May you never lose sight of the light.
Thanks for reading, and have a MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Listen to Dr. Jerome Groopman on NPR here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1638913
Read the Episcopal News Service article here: Advent & Christmas Eve – ENS
Read about the importance of hope in medicine here: Et lux in tenebris lucent