Advent 1, 2010
Among the Candles of Advent the First One is Called Hope –
Hope is an interesting notion. It has no substance. It is choosing to live with the assumption that your present situation will improve. And it evaporates when that which was so longingly hoped for materializes. It doesn’t deny how things are – quite the opposite – it takes the reality of the present moment as its base line. Hope expects a future but is grounded in the now, no matter how intolerable that seems to be. One reason for hope to have become so illusive for us today is that instead of envisioning a better future our inclination is to identify who to blame for our present state of affairs: from the super wealthy to the undocumented alien; from the corporations to the government. We just aren’t interested in a better future.
In recent years Hope has suffered with regard to careers. Automation and globalization has resulted in frustration in finding work. There have never been so many employees working in the wrong jobs as there are now. So what is the incentive to put off a lesser value today for a greater value in what is thought to be a deteriorating tomorrow.
But our world has changed in other ways. Putting something away for the future has been displaced with having it now. For some this has become a real problem. A recent study reported that seventy percent of newlyweds are in debt when they get married. More than one-third of both husbands and wives bring more than $5,000 of unsecured debt into their marriage. Most had an auto loan. Half carried a credit card balance. A fourth were paying off college loans, and a significant number had medical debt. This amount of debt, along with other expenses associated with couples beginning their lives together, distracts couples from what is necessary to build a strong marriage during the first few months and years of marriage. Such debt was seen by husbands and wives in this study as being the most problematic of the many difficulties they faced. When we got married blood tests were required. Today potential brides and grooms need to get credit reports before they say their vows.
Some would suggest that living with debt before marriage is a sign of confidence in one’s future. I think it’s a lack of assurance brought about by a couple of things. Over the last twenty-five years people have delayed getting married by five years. When you are twenty years old five years looks like a very long time to put off moving ahead with life. Another thing is that, given our familiarity with divorce, marriage itself appears “iffy”. The family is not a static institution. Literally, the defining characteristics of marriage have changed. Hope has suffered.
There is another thing that tells me that. The Lane Company of Altavista, Virginia closed its doors in 2001. Lane’s business was built around a coming of age tradition for young women, that of a Hope Chest. For all practical purposes a hope chest is simply a blanket chest, sometimes constructed of or lined with cedar. It was constructed with portability in mind. Young women would receive their hope chest as a Graduation, Christmas or Birthday present. In it they would store away all kinds of things from a keepsake quilt to items for their wedding trousseau, from delicate pretties and hand embroidered linens to a cheese grater, all in anticipation of setting up their own home when in the future they would get married.
Anybody remember the 1955 western movie with Ray Milland called A Man Alone. His character takes refuge in the basement of the home of the Sheriff. What I recall of the movie is where the Sheriff’s daughter comes down stairs and the fugitive watches her as she tearfully opens up her hope chest, a hope chest that, quite significantly, had been moved to the basement. Wordlessly the apparent contradiction makes a poignant statement about events in the young woman’s life. It is a testimonial to the fact that hope comes with no guarantee. Filling a hope chest takes a certain amount of thoughtful discipline, maturity. To purchase something for one’s future trumps buying something to be used in the moment.
While we were picking up some groceries the other day we watched a little guy crying loudly as he followed his mother from the store. It seems that Mom had bought some candy – for later. He wanted it now. We want everything now. Hope seems to be an antiquated concept.
A questionable hope raises serious issues for contemporary spirituality.
Our Old Testament reading for today is Isaiah’s proclamation of hope. The important line is “In the days to come…”. He declares that his is a vision of the state of nation of Judah during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. The conditions he describes are intolerable. It reads: “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. …4Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” Later in the chapter he adds: “21How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers! 22Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. 23Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”
Yet, in the face of their corruption, they saw themselves as a religious people. And God was repulsed by their worship. The Prophet speaks: “…the Lord (says): I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. … I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
Isaiah tells them that God acted to counter the unrighteousness of their land. They thought their religiosity would protect them from the consequences of their mistreatment of their neighbors. They were wrong. As the Prophet speaks they were paying the consequences for their behavior. Listen: 7Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.”
He tells them that if they want any kind of a future they have to begin to clean up the mess they have made of things. “16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Some of our enthusiastic evangelists forgot to tell us that the first line of this passage that speaks of scarlet sins becoming white as snow says: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings”. We’ve been quick to grasp what has become an effortless and inexpensive salvation. Instant spiritual gratification that separates us from our humanity and our responsibility as people. Part of hope for a better future for Israel was that they would ‘cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
God said: “25I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. 26And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. 27Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. 28But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.” You see, hope doesn’t come without a cost. But, it’s not really an expenditure, it’s an investment. There is something instructive about putting beautiful things into the safe keeping of our spiritual hope chest.
Since the middle ages the concluding words of every Passover meal are: “Next year in Jerusalem!” “Next year” encapsulates that continuing flicker of hope that has sustained them for centuries in the midst of despair. The words “next year” suggest a sense of being on the cusp but not yet having arrived, of possibility that is ripe and alive with implication. Rabbi David Hartman sees both the miracles of creation and the exodus from Egypt as pointing to the potential for revolutionary change–that things don’t have to be the way they are, that oppressive regimes can change, visions of what a human being can be, what society can be, what people can be, what history may become. That is the significance of “Next year in Jerusalem.” Every year, Rabbi Hartman writes, Jews drink four cups of wine and then pour a fifth cup for Elijah. “The cup is poured, but not yet drunk. Yet the cup of hope is poured every year.”
Throughout Jewish history, whenever God has pronounced penatential judgment it is always accompanied by a word of hope. Hope of a land promised to Abraham required leaving his home and family for an alien world. Hope of escaping Egyptian bondage required returning to the life of a nomadic tribe. Returning to the promised land from Babylonian captivity called the Jews of the diaspora to give up the lives to which they had become accustomed. To see hope fulfilled makes real demands on us.
We might want to inventory our spiritual hope chest. Luke, in telling the Emmaus Road story (24:21), has Cleoas confessing to the incognito risen Jesus: “We had hoped…”. They were going home in despair. Hope had lost out against a preceived reality. In 1961 Thomas Merton wrote in his book New Seeds of Contemplation that despair is, ultimately, a form of pride that chooses misery instead of accepting the mysterious designs of God’s plans and acknowledging that we are not capable of fulfilling our destinies by ourselves. Despair places our own limited perspective above God’s.
Peter’s declaration (1st Peter 3:15) that we should be ready to share the hope that is in us is grounded on an interesting assumption – that within each of lies a hope. The very act of self identification with any movement declares the idea that hope is being served. Is there a hope that is within you? The calendar relentlessly moves us toward Christmas. It is, a season which, first of all, is one of hope. Christian hope does not mean living in the clouds, dreaming of a better life. It is not merely a projection of what we would like to be or do. It leads us to discover seeds of a new world already present today. In addition, it is a source of energy to live differently, not according to a society based on the values of possession and competition. Nor does the divine promise ask us to sit down and wait passively for it to come about, as if by magic. To enter into God’s promise, Abraham was called to make of his life a pilgrimage, to undergo a new beginning. Like Abraham we each are called to “Leave your country and your home for the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Similarly, the good news of the resurrection is not a way of taking our minds off the tasks of life here and now, but a call to set out on the road where the risen Christ declared “You will be my witnesses”.
Impelled by the Spirit of Christ we are freed to live in oneness with humanity and our Creator. As we embark on this life, we are lead to create signs of a different future here and now, in the middle of the difficulties of the world, seeds of renewal that will bear fruit when the time comes. Hoping is identifying with the Kingdom of God, placing our trust in the promises of Christ and, not relying on our own strength, but rather the grace of Christ’s Spirit who came, and is coming. Hope is the confidence that God abides with you on your journey of life into eternity.