I didn’t grow up lighting candles at church, or at home for that matter. But as parents Katie and I found that Advent was a way to slow ourselves—and our children— down, and focus on the meaning of Christmas.
The arrival of this season is a great time to start thinking about the incarnation. And hope is the perfect way to begin.
The prophets clearly longed for the revelation of God with us, the root of Jesse “who shall stand as a signal for the peoples.” But they also expected it—which makes hope, well, hope.
This expectation is probably what Vaclav Havel, the former president of Czechoslovakia, had in mind when he said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
This gets at the heart of the matter, although hope seems to be about both. I think we must expect that things will turn out well and that they will also make sense, if not always from our perspective. It’s one thing to wish things will work out OK. That’s an easy antidote to despair.
To believe they will also make sense, even if they don’t turn out the way we want them too, however, distinguishes hope from wishful thinking. For Christians this certainty rests in the providence and purpose of God. And it is always coupled with this caveat—eventually.
Eventually must have seemed like a really long time to a people who waited centuries for the Christ. One thinks of Simeon, “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel” at the temple. When he finally sees the baby, he says:
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. (Luke 2:29-31 ESV)
And then we think of Anna, the 84 year old widow who “at that very hour began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38 ESV)
I’m not sure hope can be separated from waiting. Instant gratification is no virtue, of course. But when we keep expecting the good stuff while we are waiting through the bad stuff we know something of hope.
This sort of expectant longing for the triumph of righteousness is well expressed in the ancient hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel, based on an old French tune and a Latin text from the 12th century:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Such longing is good for us, even if as a child we only experience it waiting for Christmas. And as an adult, we experience it in anticipation of when Christ returns again to set things right.
Sometimes, depending on the situation, it’s good to wait. For sex. For dinner. For tea. For gifts. So much of what we long for isn’t quite yet right or ready.
Advent reminds us of this.
So we light a candle and we wait.
In 2003 I posted a series of advent devotionals. They start here.