The Risk of Hope: An Advent Sermon

“I am a Christian by Yearning. Opposed to my doubt and perversity is a longing that the gospel be true. Christians are made, said the apostle Paul, of faith, hope, and charity. Though I have little charity and less faith, perhaps I have hope in some abundance.”—Levi Peterson, “A Christian by Yearning”

Hope is hard; let’s not pretend otherwise. And it is risky. Things with feathers are also things with talons, and those who hope make themselves vulnerable to despair. When we embrace hope, we take the same risks we take when we embrace another person: we might be rejected, we might be disappointed, and we might find that we have misplaced our hope in something unworthy of our attention. “Embrace is grace,” writes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, “and grace is a gamble, always.”

But hope is also part of our human nature. Human beings cannot live meaningfully without hope in something. And a longing to believe in something beyond ourselves—some principle of order and meaning in a universe that knows who we are—comes from deep within our species’ collective mind. Nobody captures this longing better than Thomas Hardy does in his 1915 poem, “The Oxen”:

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.

Like many early twentieth-century intellectuals, Hardy was a non-believer who considered the probable non-existence of God to be a great tragedy. He wanted to believe, and he spent much of his later life looking for something to reassure him that his life would not end with his death. But he remained deeply agnostic all of his life. He never took the risk and embraced the hope that grew out of his longing.

Other great poets did take the risk. One such was John Berryman, a leading figure in the confessional school of poetry, whose long poem sequence Dream Songs (1969) is usually seen as one of the major poetic works of the second half of the 20th century. Less known, but no less great, is Berryman’s shorter sequence, “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” (1971), which expresses the core of his religious faith. In the first poem of the sequence, he writes:

I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn’t seem likely
from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view
but certainly all things are possible to you,

and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter & to Paul
as I believe I sit in this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case
to establish their initiatory faith.

Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.

These lines strike me as expressing a meaningful hope in eternal life. It is not a statement of knowledge, or even of belief. Intellectually, Berryman is genuinely agnostic about the idea of an afterlife. And yet he expresses confidence in God’s power and goodness, and he declares himself willing to learn. Even those who claim to know things for sure rarely do better than this.

One thing that the Apostle Paul makes clear in his letters is that the value of hope does not lie in the eternal life that we hope for, but in the mortal life that we have to get through—a life that, for most people, is full of tragedy and loss. In Paul’s first-known letter to a Christian congregation, Paul resolves a concern that arose in the Christian community of Thessalonica about the resurrection of their dead brothers and sisters:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. . . Therefore encourage one another with these words. —1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, 18 (NRSV)

The great value of hope, Paul suggests here, is that it allows us to comfort others. He knew that the Christians in Thessalonica would still have to grieve. Sorrow and loss are inherent in the human condition. We choose loss every time that we choose to love someone absolutely, and there is no getting around it unless we become the cause of somebody else’s grief. Christians must grieve, but they do not have to grieve without hope. And this creates a context in which we can accomplish our most basic Christian responsibility of mourning with those who mourn and bearing one another’s burdens that they may be light.

I find myself thinking a lot about hope during this advent season because it has been a time of profound grief. The world has never been entirely well, but it seems a lot less well than it has been in a long time. Heading into the Christmas season, we are all dealing with a steady flow of horrifically violent episodes, a terrifying war, a sharply divided Republic, and a not-quite-over pandemic. This is a lot to grieve, and grieve we must. But we do not have to grieve without hope. I will admit that I have gotten very close on some days, but something always sustains me—a hope, very faint at times but never entirely absent, that there is something in the universe that cares about human flourishing and that this something will have the last word.

Like Levi Peterson I am not, in the traditional sense, a believer. I don’t claim to know anything with absolute certainty, and my beliefs are very modest and mostly about the things of this world. But I am an unbridled, inveterate hoper. I hope that God is real. I hope that my Redeemer Lives. I hope that some part of me is eternal and will live on when I am dead. I hope that there is some order and meaning in the universe that knows who I am. It’s not much, I grant you, but it is also everything. Because of this hope, I consider myself a person of faith, which has had profound implications for the way that I live my life.

And now for a special treat—and a reward for making it all the way to the end—check out this marvelous setting of Hardy’s “The Oxen” by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his 1954 Christmas cantata, Hodie.

Comments

  1. “But I am an unbridled, inveterate hoper.” That feels like what it is for me, as well. I’ll continue to gather the good wherever I find it and hope whomever (if anything) is on the other side they are good as well.
    Thank you. Happy Advent.

  2. chinoblanco says:

    “Hope is hard; let’s not pretend otherwise. And it is risky. Things with feathers are also things with talons, and those who hope make themselves vulnerable to despair.” —Levi Peterson.

    “I couldn’t care less about destroying Mormonism, I just want to live with it in a declawed form.” —Me

  3. Trust MA and RVW to usher in advent so. Both give me hope.

  4. Thank you very much for enriching my Sabbath morning today.

  5. I try to remember that atheists will never have the satisfaction of knowing they were correct; but they will certainly know despair if they were wrong (with possible eternal consequences). Likewise, if there is nothing after this life, the believer will never know disillusionment (or anything else). This helps me to chose hope and faith over despondency or nihility.

  6. Hogarth – existence of something does not require belief in it. Atheists could be correct in that they will find that there is no God in ultimate control of creation.
    Even Nihilists will, I’m sure, get their time of satisfaction as they dissolve into nothingness.

    Looking forward to others “eternal consequences” is kind of self-righteous.

    To me, it’s all part of the wonder of hope; wonder at how very much more exists than our very limited selves can know. The journey, what we learn along the way, even if it is all lost to oblivion, is the joy.

  7. I think this Thomas Hardy is the most nearly perfect Christmas poem in English.

  8. Alma — you misunderstand. I am not looking forward to other’s consequences; instead, I am the one fighting the appeal of nihilism. And it is the thought of my own potential, eternal consequences that motivates me in times of despair to hope that faith is the safer bet rather than self-annihilation.

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