During elementary school I participated in a reading program that I quite enjoyed. One story has stuck with me all these years later. It brushes up against the topic of hope.
The fable involves a poor man surviving a night on a snowy mountaintop with only his worn peasant garb for warmth. In performing this act, he demonstrates his fortitude to the arrogant village rich man, who justifies his stinginess by attributing poverty to weakness. The rich man—assuming any who attempted such a bivouac would either die or falter—had promised a sizable portion of his wealth to any would-be survivor. Unbeknownst to him, the poor man’s friends had built a large bonfire on neighboring hillside. Though pummeled by the frigid winds, the man gazed intently upon its distant flicker, imagining its warmth to his body. And he survived.
When the poor man appears back in the village the following day, the rich man is incredulous. Upon learning the device of the friends, he declares the prize null—the poor man had violated the rules. Despite protests, the rich man refuses to honor his promise. “The sight of fire was sufficient,” he insists.
The friends again devise a scheme. After a religious fast, the entire village is gathered to a ceremonial feast in the town square. The feast is prepared while the celebrants wait—including the rich man. Scents of broiled meats, herbs, spices, and cakes flood the square. But no food is served. Eventually the rich man becomes impatient and demands the feast begin. He is notified that they would only be allowed to smell the food. Outraged, he rails that smelling can never take the place of eating. In this admission, he loses his prior cause and is forced to honor his promise to the poor man.
The moral of the fable seems contradictory. Yearning either holds a power that is actual or illusory. In the same way, hope contradicts us thoroughly! Yet, nonetheless, Advent shamelessly invokes it. So we must decide if we will surrender ourselves into its contradictions. Hope is, at the same time, sublime and ridiculous.
On account of its sublimity, it is a favored libation of politicians and preachers alike. It bursts with flavor, yet can go down like hemlock. Caveat imbiber! King Solomon had it right, “hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
And what is hope, really? A look at the Hebrew and Greek usage provides an unsatisfying answer: “to wait”. Hope is a peculiar amalgam of waiting and wanting. It is waiting, with thoughts and emotions latched to some absent thing. “Who hopes for what they already have?” Saint Paul queried. “But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Sublime though it may appear, hope can be rather ridiculous.
That is to say, hope is often found to suffer ridicule. The postmodern playwright Samuel Becket panned hope in his absurdist play Waiting for Godot, which one critic described as “a play in which nothing happens . . . twice!” It features two men waiting interminably for a man—Godot—upon whom they have placed an enigmatic but total hope. Both acts are essentially the same. Nothing happens. During each act a boy arrives with dispatches from Godot, “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.” The aforementioned theater critic added that, though nothing happens, “yet it keeps audiences glued to their seats.” Isn’t hope that way?
In addition to nonplussing audience members, surely Becket would abash their hope—the cardinal absurdity.
Advent remains unabashed. The hope of Advent is birthed from the womb of a virgin.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
The poem upon which this beloved hymn was based, was written by the French poet Placide Cappeau (the American minister John Dwight rendered its English version). Cappeau’s was a life that defied predictability. At the age of eight, he lost his dominant hand while he and a friend were playing with a gun that discharged. He went on to become an illustrator, then a lawyer, then a wine merchant, then a mayor—all the while writing fiction and poetry. What an unexpected life! The unexpected is the stuff of hope. Its what keeps us glued to our seats.
Advent hope catches us all off guard. That is its trademark. It leaves us with more questions than answers. Advent implores us to expect the unexpected.
This was actually the theme of Cappeau’s original poem (“Minuit, chrétiens”):
Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour. . .
People, kneel down, await your deliverance.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Advent chides us to stop pretending we know everything; to leave room for God to have more tricks up His sleeve. The twinkle in God’s eye becomes like a star hovering over some unseen appearing. The twinkle in His eye becomes a flickering light to which we might affix our longing gaze—as the fabled bonfire. But, as with the bonfire, it is more still. It is the knowledge that the flickering light represents the activities and the very presence of One who is our loving friend.
Yes, hope is an amalgam of waiting and wanting, but Advent hope is infused with something more; an indomitable conviction of fulfillment. In the Advent, the Maker surprised us all. The light entered the darkness, and the darkness could make no sense of it. The Creator inhabited His creation, and they couldn’t figure out where He fit. The priests and prophets and kings all had it wrong. It was the curious, the humble, the desperate to whom it first became clear or, rather, clearer.
I’ll confess that this post stumped me. For over a week it stumped me. Hope was stumping me, because I kept wrecking upon my own soul; arms crossed, foot tapping impatiently, staring down its nose back at me, “aaaaa-nd?” I’ll admit, I projected that onto you as well. What is all this melancholy drivel? Proud pessimism has been my own recent folly; a swamp I’ve been struggling to slog my way out of. I don’t know; maybe you’ve been there too?
One of the things that stumped me is this whole business of “the entire world” thrilling with hope. That just isn’t the case, is it? Most are at best perplexed by Advent. At worst, they find it quite contemptible. Sometimes the “they” is me. But there really is no soul without hope, is there? Every soul is at least hoping for hope. Or even hoping for hoping for . . . you get the idea. We cannot help ourselves. Hope may contradict and sicken us, but the one thing more dreadful than subsisting upon hope is subsisting without it.
This alone explains the consumerist engorgement that now passes for “the holiday season”—the season of holy days. Holy days are meant to be contradictory days; solemn hours rewarded with thrills of true hope. We consume to consume our hopelessness, but still it gapes. The pietist writer AW Tozer wrote,
The heart of the world is breaking under this load of pride and pretense . . . To men and women everywhere Jesus says, “Come unto me, and I will give you rest.”
It is indeed the weary world that rejoices; the world that has understood itself to be weary. It is the sick who enter the waiting room.
The hope of Advent is found in Peter’s honest answer of the Savior’s question, “Would you like to leave as well?”
“Lord, to whom shall we go?”
At one point this week I found myself thinking about what the opposite of hope might be. I believe it to be fear. Yet, how closely they resemble one another! It is uncanny! Each one bracing itself, wincing as it comes around every blind corner. They are almost identical twins or a mirror reflection. But the one is so unfortunate. The psalmist wrote, “Do not fret—it only leads to evil!” Meanwhile, those who practice hope might “shine like dawn.” Like the cinematic angelic and devilish advisors on each shoulder, I suspect each party has been vying for my fealty lately. I suspect this is happening broadly in my society these days. Maybe especially in the church. We are at our most human when we hope, we devolve into something altogether different when we fear.
It was the Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks who introduced a young Helen Keller to the Hope of Advent—that is, to Jesus. She would go on to say, “I always knew he was there, but I didn’t know his name.” How adept the sightless become at perceiving the unseen presence of others. At times this must be somewhat unnerving; hope and fear, curiosity and apprehension intermingled.
The same Episcopal clergyman would collaborate on a hymn with his organist, who attributed its tune to being “roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear.” The lyrics were inspired by Brooks’ own visit to Bethlehem and are a meditation on its unassuming yet astonishing moment of Advent.
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Indistinguishable though hope might be from fear, yet Advent arrives to meet them both—to greet them both!—alike. And each might find in Advent a flickering light and draw its warmth to themselves.