This Advent, we’re meditating on the idea of Hope by looking at quotes from Christians and talking about what they might say about our Advent Hope.
“It is precisely because the Christian hopes for the ultimate and definitive, that she also hopes for the temporal and provisional. Precisely because she hopes with joy for the dawn of the great light, that she hopes with provisional joy for the little lights, which may come and go, but which will not come and go in vain.
These little lights act as temporary illuminations that can help the Christian to look and move more properly towards that which they can only point to, but which in their proper time and place can in fact actually represent to us!
Because the Christian hopes for the Last Day, for the eternal year, he hopes for the next day and the new year, from which, whatever they may bring, he can always expect at least new indications of the coming of Jesus Christ.”
–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2, p.938 (edited for clarity)
Read those words again. Slowly. We need these words, especially this year. As predators of consumerism, terrorism, pseudo-fascism, jingoism, escapism, and liberal idealism lie in wait to consume our souls, we need a light in the darkness. We need something to hold on to.
As the poor cry out, the politicians rage, and as San Bernardino/Chicago/Ferguson/Paris/ Lebanon/Syria/Israel/Palestine/Etc./Etc./Etc. bleed, I admit, I just don’t want to deal with it. I feel my own anxiety rise as I’m reaching and striving for any little distraction.
I don’t know that I’ve experienced a time when both so much and so little was being said in our nation at the very same moment. It’s exhausting. With ideological fanaticism raging in this country (from Right to Left, from Christian to Muslim), I can’t seem to find any little corner (including in my own heart) where there is just quiet.
If I try and still myself, I feel a lump rising in my throat, a shame and guilt rising in my soul. Why? Because this darkness is my own. This year, for the first time perhaps, I really feel the same “substance” wrapping its oily fingers around the world’s neck is in me.
Whether we look up or down, outside our borders or in our minds, all there seems to be this year is darkness. And this is why I’m finding it appropriate to meditate on Hope this Advent season.
Not because Hope “answers” or “fixes” anything. It is “Hope” precisely because nothing is answered or fixed. Hope is what remains when certainty has left the room. The Fundamentalist cannot hope. But the fearful doubter that doesn’t know what the hell to think or do? Now that’s a place hope can go.
In the quote above, Barth says that it is by anchoring ourselves in the ultimate that we can really see the beauty in what he calls the “temporal and provisional”. Too often, we use the immediate darkness to set the terms for what lies beyond. This is natural and normal and even reasonable–we shouldn’t feel guilty about that.
And yet, we are not left with the darkness. We are given what Barth calls “little lights”. I love that image. I imagine lights on a Christmas tree, or stars in the sky. Think about it. Between you and any given star, there are light years of dark space and dark matter. And yet, that one tiny star tells you there is something through the black, and that it is reaching back through the ages of blackness to get to you.
If you’re anything like me, the difficulty in this is not the “light” part. It’s the “little” part. When great big lights are cast in the world, we are eager to see Christ’s Kingdom “adventing” to us. When peoples are liberated, when sickness is healed, when nations find their voice, we can hurry the dark away and give birth to a little joy in our hearts.
But Barth, Advent, and the Gospel call us to something harder but, in the end, more sustainable. We can’t live life in this darkness waiting for Great Lights to pierce it. We have to look for the “little lights” and see them for what they are: God’s own life and light extended to us in a moment, a movement, a flickering fleeting glance of light within which holds eternity.
Rather than standing with those looking for Messiah riding in the clouds on the light of a thousand suns, may we look for the little light of Mary, pregnant with meaning and hope, even as the sword pierces her heart–and ours.