Advent & the Virtue of Hope

Beloved in Christ,

If Pride is the root of all the habits of the heart what we call “deadly sins” (the others being Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Greed, and Sloth), then surely their fruition is Despair, which is, then, the deadliest of all the deadly sins. Despair is deadly because it is a profession of atheism; to abandon hope is to abandon God, on the (false) premise that God has already abandoned us. When we surrender to Despair, we have given up. We have forgotten that we are only in the middle of the story, and that at the end of the story, God wins. Every wrong is righted, every injustice redressed.

The opposite of Despair is Hope. Hope, along with Faith and Love, is one of the classic Christian “theological virtues.” It is both the foundation and the fruit of Christian character and holiness of life. Ultimately, all virtue is a gift of God’s grace. If God didn’t give it to us, we would have no … well, hope of attaining it. But the spark of virtue that God gives us through grace can–indeed, must–be cultivated and encouraged by our intentions and actions. Growth in the virtue of Hope is the result of practice–specific things we do to cooperate with grace.

This is where the season of Advent is such a great blessing, because it’s all about Hope. The observe Advent is to practice Hope. From beginning to end, Advent leads us into Hope, and it does so in a most interesting and captivating manner.

Times flows backward in Advent. We start at the end and proceed to the beginning. The First Sunday of Advent (December 1 this year) draws our hearts and imaginations to Last Things (the fancy theological jargon for which is eschatology), continuing a theme that has been building through the previous two or three Sundays. At one level, this is potentially frightening, because it involves judgment. It involves rendering an account before God for our stewardship of the life and resources that were entrusted to us. But it is also an occasion of great hope for those who have put their faith in Christ. It is part of a chain of events that reveals God’s relentless impulse toward redemption, toward the reweaving of the fabric of a broken universe, toward God’s final victory over all that deprives human beings of abundant life and lasting joy, a victory that is won by the work of Christ on the cross. In the words of a hymn often sung on Advent Sunday, “With what rapture … gaze we on those glorious scars.”

In our lectionary, the Second and Third Sundays of Advent typically have a dual focus. The Old Testament readings are from Isaiah. Isaiah is the quintessential prophet of the Advent. The long document is replete with images and oracles that the Church has, from the beginning, understood as referring to Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah. The texts of Isaiah are wrapped up with some very anxious moments in the history of the Jewish people: the threat of material privation and military conquest, and the experience of exile. Into that anxiety Isaiah speaks words of hope: “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says the Lord. … And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” In the gospel readings on these Sundays, we hear from John the Baptist. John can be intimidating. He’s a straight shooter, and tells the truth even when it’s uncomfortable and hard to hear. What a gift that is! Those who tell us truth that we do not wish to hear are our best friends. From truth comes repentance, and from repentance comes redemption, and from redemption comes hope.

Finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (just three days before Christmas this year), we find ourselves either with Mary or Joseph (it’s Joseph this year) listening to the startling news from an angel about the conception of the Son of God in Mary’s womb. In both cases, the message at first incites fear, and fear is hardly a hope-filled response! But the angel’s counsel is “Fear not!”, and he proceeds to explain the marvelous plan of God by which this very strange birth would accomplish God’s loving purposes for the deliverance of the entire created order from the curse of Sin and Death. Mary’s “Let it be to me as you have spoken” and Joseph’s willingness to proceed with his engagement to her are both eminently hopeful acts.

As we celebrate the Holy Eucharist during Advent, just before we sing Holy, holy, holy … , the presider prays, on behalf of the whole assembly, that when Jesus appears in power and glory to judge the world, we will “without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.” Indeed, to be unashamed and unafraid is to be filled with hope. My prayer for everyone in our diocesan family is that we know the hope that is mediated to us through the celebration of Advent, and that we will be prepared to greet the One who is our Hope when Christmas arrives.

May blessings abound,


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