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Opinion Advent teaches us that hope is not a cruel joke

Salisbury Cathedral in Britain celebrates the beginning of Advent on Nov. 29.
Salisbury Cathedral in Britain celebrates the beginning of Advent on Nov. 29. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
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America’s political culture is dominated by fear. For some, it is fear that the triumph of progressivism would bring anti-religious persecution and fundamentally alter the American way of life. For others, it is fear that the reelection of President Trump would remove the last restraints on his cruelty, vindictiveness and contempt for the rule of law. My anxieties are firmly in the second camp. But the general mood of trepidation is universal. Our greatest political passion seems dedicated not to the pursuit of dreams but to the avoidance of nightmares.

When the goal is to interrupt a downward trajectory, patience is hardly a virtue. In this environment, political rhetoric and writing tend to assume the form of a desperate fundraising appeal: Respond now, or the apocalypse is upon us.

Sustaining this type of distressed uncertainty for long periods, I can attest, is like putting arsenic in your saltshaker. It is a self-administered poison. It kills peace, gratitude and contentment. It undermines mental and physical health. And it is deeply at odds with the Advent season.

This is the time of the Christian year dedicated to expectant longing. God, we are assured, is at mysterious work in the world. Evil and conflict are real but not ultimate. Grace and deliverance are unrealized but certain. Patient waiting is rewarded because the trajectory of history is tilted upward by a powerful hand.

None of this is to deny the high stakes of politics and elections. But the assurance at the heart of Advent is the antidote to fear. No matter how desperate the moment, we are told, time is on the side of hope.

Such hope does not come naturally to human beings. On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational. Entropy is built into nature. Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent. There is a certain bleak dignity in accepting the challenge of a hopeless cause.

But most of us can’t be content in this state. We fill the void with cries of protest, or hymns of thanksgiving, or demands for justice. This search for answers seems essential to our humanity. It is possible, of course, that our deepest longings are actually cruel jokes of nature. But it is also possible and rational that our longings are hints of a reality beyond nature. Perhaps our desires exist because they are meant to be fulfilled.

This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing. Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.

Some of the most vivid hopes came from Hebrew prophets who yearned for a savior with aching intensity — hopes that culminated in a confusing visitation. “You shall conceive,” Mary heard. “But . . . I am a virgin,” she protested. “With God nothing shall be impossible,” she was told. Then her answer: “Be it unto me according to thy word.”

This is perhaps the greatest human moment in the Bible — the calm and trusting response of a young Jewish girl to an absurd and epic request: “Be it unto me according to thy word.”

Mary, who was obviously familiar with the Hebrew prophets, immediately saw the revolutionary implications of the inexplicable child: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent away empty.”

This is the fullest expression of the hope of Advent — that all wrongs will finally be righted, that all the scales will eventually balance and that no one will be exploited or afraid. But this hope is not yet fulfilled. Poets and theologians have strained for ways to describe this sense of anticipation. It is like a seed in the cold earth. Like the first, barely detectable signs of a thaw. Like a child growing in a womb.

People who hold such an expectation should not be consumed by worry or driven by insecurity. Because hope is not a cruel joke. Because nothing is impossible with God. Because the seed is planted. Because Advent is a declaration of war upon fear.

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