Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard; and sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird that kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land, and on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity, it asked a crumb of me.
Hope. Emily Dickinson beautifully captures the depth and breadth of this fascinating emotion. In her assessment, hope is hard and steady, as she says: “sweetest in the gale…” Storms are not the place for mere optimism or positive attitudes. This is a place for hope.
The challenges of hard times call us beyond positive thinking. Biblical hope moves with a depth of emotion that appraises the world with stark realism and in the face of difficult circumstances knows that the last word is not yet spoken. In the face of hostile empires, against the prevailing winds and as counterpoints to conventional wisdom, biblical hope can be as gentle as a lamb on Christmas Eve. It can also be as harsh as a pointed finger at an unjust king. One does not speak out against injustice if there is no hope.
So it is not a passive stance that simply wishes current circumstances would improve. Biblical hope rises with initiative and moves to offer alternatives to the present and new perspectives on current problems. It takes an active voice and positive role in shaping new realities, so that justice need not be a dream, nor that peace feel distant and unknowable.
The prophets saw in Israel a hope for humanity, God’s dream offered with fresh possibilities of unshackled blessings and widened community. Incarnated in Jesus, that hope of old breathed new life into a disillusioned past just as it now can embolden hearts in our confusing present.
Biblical hope, this grand word we claim in Advent’s first week, necessitates a response. Like its other three partners in the Advent progression, hope calls out from us not only what can be, but what should be. It summons love into the equation of sacred interaction; it invokes peace as the partner confronting all that is and all that might be; it stands with justice, entices joy, enhances vision, strengthens commitment, enlivens passion, broadens fortitude, and deepens courage.
That’s why Christmas begins with hope. It offers change to circumstances otherwise mired in complexity, derailed by ignorance, or stymied by anger. This biblical hope, this hope that Jesus brings through word, deed and transformation, allows the insufficiencies of my life and your life to be joined in a broadened force of glad assurance: we are not alone; we are not without. For there is hope. And with Dickinson, we can say that hope:
perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all …
May if be so for you, a Christmas season beginning and especially filled with hope.