Today’s Lectionary Readings
Hope is not optimism—not, at least, in the sense of calling a half-empty glass half-full. Indeed, if life is a glass, I think we can all agree that sometimes it is far worse than either half-empty or half-full. Sometimes the glass is just plain empty. Sometimes it is shattered on the floor. Hope is not a question of finding the right name for something or looking at something awful from a positive angle.
After all, hope is not denial. It does not call evil good. It does not call ugliness beauty. It lets evil be evil. It lets ugliness be ugliness. It lets the glass be empty. I think we all have had the profoundly condescending experience of being exhorted to “look on the bright side” when all that we see is darkness. But such an exhortation is not an exhortation to hope; hope does not turn darkness into light. However, hope does proclaim something deeper, over and against whatever darkness does surround us.
Now is as good a time as any to be talking about hope. After all, Advent is a season of hope. We are, to quote Zechariah, “prisoners of hope” (Zech. 9:12). And finally, an excerpt from today’s psalm (146:5-9) is itself a proclamation of hope. Let us examine it and reflect on what that hope really entails, if not mere optimism.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made the heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
This hopeful psalm declares a profoundly triumphant yet totally unfulfilled reality: if this psalm is true, then it is not completely true yet. After all, it is easy to see that many who are oppressed have not yet received justice. Many who are hungry have not yet received food. Many who are prisoners have not yet received freedom. Many who are blind have not yet received sight. There are yet strangers who feel nothing but isolation and abandonment. There are yet orphans and widows who are not upheld but denigrated. And of course, if God really does bring the way of the wicked to ruin, evidently God has not done this yet: on the whole wickedness seems to be fairly successful these days.
Hope does not deny this unfinishedness. While the prisoner of optimism, encountering this psalm and its lack of fulfillment, seeks out a bright-side or a half-full glass, the prisoner of hope has no interest in silver linings. She instead calls the darkness by its name. She lets the glass be empty. Yes, she says, there are still oppressed and hungry and imprisoned and blind and ostracized people, indeed, a numberless host. But such a statement as this is not a despairing act of surrender or a resigned consent to the triumph of evil. It is rather a necessary affirmation which is hope’s first task: for it is only when we have named darkness and seen it for what it is that we can embrace it and descend into its very heart, in order to proclaim something over and against it. The depraved place at the heart of darkness is in fact exactly where the Church must go, in order to be the hands and feet of God bringing about the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.
Hope, therefore, is not an optimistic outlook. Hope is a practice, a reality of participation, whereby we proclaim a radical expectation of justice by entering into where justice is most needed and becoming that expectation’s fulfillment. When we hope, we invite God to move and breathe through us, so that by our faith, and by the deeds it effects, we may bring to fruition the liberation proclaimed in passages like the psalm above. And as long as darkness still reigns, and as long as wickedness still runs rampant, we by hoping do not deny the evil we combat—but we do affirm that God is not done working, and therefore, neither are we.
The import of Advent and its message of hope is not a mere denial of darkness, nor is it only the assurance that Christ will come again at some obscure point in the future. The import of Advent and its message of hope is rather a radical affirmation of the darkness itself, and the consequent realization that God still has work to do—and therefore, so do we. This Advent let us invite Christ to be born within us and to live out His work of love through us, so that we—as true prisoners of hope—may become the fulfillment of the very expectation we proclaim, over and against the very real darkness which closes in. In hoping we do not deny it—with God, we embrace it, and in embracing it, we will defeat it.
Aidan Luke Stoddart ’21 is a junior in Eliot House studying Comparative Religion.