Hope Is the Thing With Oxen

Hope is the Jan Brady of the theological virtues–the sober, responsible middle-child stuck between the mountain moving urgency of Faith and the flashy  never-failething of Charity. Hope does its essential work much more quietly. But it is nonetheless essential work.

If we aren’t careful, we can confuse hope for a sort of lesser faith. Some people know that certain things are true, and the rest of us just hope they are. If we nourish this seed of hope carefully, we are told, it will eventually grow into faith and we will know things too.

Well, I’m not there, and I don’t think that I will ever be. Hope is as much as I can muster, even on a good day. I hope that there is a God. I hope that there is some kind of existence after this life. I hope that my Redeemer lives. And I hope that the universe is organized around principles of goodness and meaningful justice far superior to those I have seen on earth.

I do not necessarily believe any of these things. And I certainly don’t know them. But I hope them with all of my heart–and that has become enough to organize my life around–the hope and the memory of a time when I believed differently.

It was Thomas Hardy who first taught me about the power of hope and memory in what has become one of my favorite poems for the Christmas season. Hardy wrote “The Oxen” in 1915, as the world was embroiled in its first modern mega-war. It has become a Christmas classic, not because of what it says about Christ, but because of what it says about Hope. Here is the full poem:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

“The Oxen” perfectly captures a common, but poorly understood, faith transition–the movement from faith to hope as an organizing principle of one’s spiritual life. In the first two stanzas, Hardy speaks from the perspective of a child who, upon hearing that the oxen knelt in the presence of the Christ Child, simply accept on faith that of course such a thing happened.

The next two stanzas come from the perspective of the adult who knows that oxen don’t normally kneel but who desperately wants to believe that we live in a world where animals can see and recognize the Son of God and know to kneel before him in a manger. This is a preposterous world, but a beautiful one. And everything seemed better and safer when we simply accepted it as the truth.

And this is why the final stanza is so crucial. Despite his doubts, his rationalism, his and his outright disbelief, the narrator tells us, he would still take a trip to look if someone claimed to see a few oxen kneeling in a nearby farmhouse (a barton in yonder coomb).No matter how much he doesn’t believe that such a thing can be true, he hopes that it might be. And that hope is enough to spur him to action.

And such is the virtue of hope. When it comes right down to it, hope–rather than knowledge or belief–is what motivates our spiritual life. Hope can be irrational, illogical, and even vain. But it is also strongest human response to be both beauty and justice. Hope can lead us to actions that can, in turn, create the very world we hope for. This is why even as confirmed a skeptic as Thomas Hardy refused to ever let it go.


  1. Lovely, Michael. And perfectly appropriate for today’s first Sunday of Advent.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful and apt First Advent reflection.

  3. I love this.
    I don’t think it’s quite the whole story, but for today I want to enjoy it as is.

  4. There is a spectrum to hope. I believe that most of the time when someone says hope it’s more like an important wish. But when faith is connected to it, hope is shy of having witnessed, but is still something that you’re confident about, you take action on it and rely on it.
    I don’t know about heaven, but I have hope in heaven.

  5. This is beautiful! I needed to read this today. Thank you. I will keep hoping too.

  6. Kevin Barney says:


  7. Bruised, broken, yet at peace says:

    Thank you, Michael. There are a couple things where I’m fairly certain in my knowledge but everything else is a struggle. In fact, much of what is taught I find fairly depressing. But this idea of hope, hope in something better even if I don’t know what it is helps move me forward. I’m grateful for your post.

  8. Jeremiah Stone says:

    Thank you. I lit my hope candle today.

  9. I was just thinking of that poem yesterday. Remembering as a child, how my grandmother recited it for me. And always hoping that outside the animals were kneeling. Thank you for printing it here.

  10. John Jenkins says:

    I’ve long struggled to understand the difference between faith and hope as sort-of-faith. I finally decided to see them through their opposites. The opposite of faith is doubt. The opposite of hope is despair. Having experienced both, I’d rather go with doubt.

  11. I am unconvinced that “doubt” generally is the opposite of “faith”, though it is sometimes used that way — perhaps too often to be encouraging. In other usages, it seems that “knowledge” is the opposite of “faith.”

  12. “Hope is the Jan Brady of the theological virtues–the sober, responsible middle-child stuck between the mountain moving urgency of Faith and the flashy never-failething of Charity.” Hope is your optimistic portrayal of Jan! She’s not grounded–she’s insecure, overlooked, whiny and pessimistic. Jan is disillusioned. More like hopeless.

  13. I missed it the first time I read this, but I loved your reference to “the memory of a time when I believed differently.” Very poignant.

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