Hope is essential. And so, it makes sense to me that the church focuses on Hope on the first of the four Sundays in Advent and at the start of a new church year.
But hope can also elude us. How, for instance, can we feel hope when the pandemic has entered its 21st month despite the development of effective vaccines last year, and which have been free and widely available to all Canadians over age 11 for the past half year? The beginning of vaccination last week among five- to 11-year-olds has generated extra hope for many of us. But what about the three million Canadian adults who have so-far refused to get vaccinated, and the vast cost their lack of vaccination has caused in terms of deaths, continued restrictions, and healthcare since the beginning of the summer?
Or how can you feel hope if you or someone you love is battling a difficult diagnosis? And how do people in British Columbia feel hope this year after being challenged by recent weather disasters?
Advent Hope is different than everyday hope, I believe; and I was reminded of this when I listened to a CBC podcast by Eleanor Wachtel last week. Wachtel interviewed famed American novelist Jonathan Franzen on her show “Writers and Company.” I have read Franzen’s bestseller and National Book Award winner “The Corrections” from 2001, and I look forward to his latest book, which was published last month. Called “Crossroads,” it is set in the early 1970s in the Midwest of the U.S. and is about the family of the Christian minister. Crossroads is a fictional youth group of the family’s liberal denomination, which the novel explores.
During the podcast, Wachtel mentions an essay by Franzen published two years ago, “What if We Stopped Pretending.” In this essay, Franzen assumes, correctly I believe, that climate disaster won’t be stopped. But if this dire prediction is true, how do we maintain hope?
Franzen begins with one of my sister’s favourite quotes from the surrealist author Franz Kafka. “There is plenty of hope,” Kafka said to an interviewer in 1920, “just not for us.” Franzen appreciates the quote even as he finds himself reversing it: “There is no hope, except for us,” he writes.
Although I don’t agree with everything Franzen wrote about climate change and hope two years ago, I appreciate his attempt to break free of denial. Whether it is climate change, social media, or familial problems, the urge for us to deny tough but evident realities is strong and almost universal.
But when we break free of the tendency to deny – when we stop hoping for things that are illusions – what then? Franzen says there is a deeper and surer kind of hope to be found in those rare moments when, with Grace, we stop denying unwanted realities. When we rise above or below the denial of realities like our own mortality, or our governments’ never-ending stupidity on COVID-19, or their inability to do anything serious about climate change, we open ourselves to a surer kind of hope.
In such moments, we might find ourselves loving the moment despite its difficult realities. Feeling this surer hope does not mean that we stop efforts to maintain our health, or actions to protect natural habitats, or attempts to better communicate our feelings and find ways to grow from family dysfunction. It means that we work for these things with less attachment to outcome. The work becomes a way to live into our sacred values and with less concern about so-called success or failure.
This Advent, we are reading Luke’s first chapter. His story about the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus is different from Matthew’s, which is the only other gospel to provide such a story. And Luke’s account of the miraculous conception of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is found only in Luke.
There is much that we can gain from these stories. But there is no history behind them. Was John Jesus’ cousin? Only Luke suggests this. What of Zechariah and Elizabeth? Once again, they only appear in Luke.
Nevertheless, these stories provide background to the church’s celebration of Christmas.
This morning, I titled this Reflection after a best-selling pregnancy guide from the 1980s. We won’t hear Zechariah’s reaction to the astonishing story told to him by an angel in the Temple in Jerusalem until next week. But the prospect of his wife Elizabeth becoming pregnant even though they are quite old greatly disturbs him, which I can understand.
The stories of the births of John and Jesus are about healing. But they are also about the difficulties of pregnancy for elderly people like Zechariah and Elizabeth and for unmarried teens like Mary; and they show how religious and political elites respond to the coming of healing with murder, and how this wonderful news is followed by more than 2,000 years of continued disease, exploitation, and death.
Nevertheless, most of us are charmed by Christmas and are filled with seemingly irrational hopes with the birth of any child.
Kim and I have experienced the latter this year with the birth of our first grandchild, Ethan. This may seem like a crazy time to bring a new child into a troubled world; and the raising of an infant seems to demand infinite effort and stress. And yet we are thrilled. We can’t help it; nor do we want to be helped.
Despite all the troubles in the present and foreseeable future, Ethan’s existence feeds both the illusory kind of hope and the more passionate hope of Advent. It might seem crazy to become a parent or grandparent right now, but like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and eventually even Zechariah, we are thrilled.
Sometimes it seems to me there is no hope for anyone — except for Ethan, for his parents, and for all of us.
We are stranded on this wondrous and troubled world seemingly without hope on so many levels. And yet, life is beautiful, this moment is precious, and children are sources of endless revelation.
And so on this first Sunday of Advent, I remind us that Christmas is coming. Watch out dear friends! I fear it’s going to be awesome.
May it be so. Amen.