The first week in Advent, the first week in the new year of the church’s calendar as we prepare for the coming of Christmas, is about HOPE.
I was reminded of the story of a teacher who was assigned to a large city hospital to visit children there. She received a routine call requesting her to visit a particular child. She took the details, the boy’s name and room number and was then told by the teacher boy’s teacher: ‘We’re studying nouns and adverbs in class now. I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t get behind the others,’
It wasn’t until the teacher reached the boy’s room that she realised it was located in the hospital’s burn unit. No-one had prepared her for a young boy horribly burned and in great pain. She felt she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, ‘I’m the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.’ The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, ‘What did you do to that boy?’
Before she could finish a profusion of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: ‘You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment… It’s as though he’s decided to live.’ The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realisation. With joyful tears he expressed it this way: ‘They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?’
This wonderful little story reveals the truth of hope. When there is something, an intangible something, that creeps into our consciousness and transforms our experience – there is hope. Hope is such a powerful force in life. Without hope people give up. With a hint of hope they can turn lives around, believe in the impossible, push on through the harshest situations and overcome tremendous obstacles. Hope is vital!
We’re not talking here about a false, made up kind of hope that is superficial and melts like ice on a hot day as soon as the bright light of reality shines upon it. Hope is not empty promise that is used to fool us into believing something nonsensical or untrue. Hope is grounded in something deep and sustaining, something that helps transform our belief, our reality and enables us to see through and beyond what is to what might be.
Hope, it seems, comes from beyond us and fills our experience with questions and doubt about the veracity and power of the current reality. Hope descends into or arises from within the experience of being lost and defeated to offer a glimmer of that which might be. Into the bleak blackness of the human condition where all seems lost, alone and defeated, comes the slightest glimmer of light. It penetrates through the darkness with flickering, varying intensity, an alternative to everything we think or believe. Hope arrives as a slight fracturing of the certainty that all is lost. This fracturing provides a possibility that what we feel may not be all there is. Perhaps there is another twist, an alternate outcome – life not death. Hope comes quietly, gently and confidently into a life that feels deathly and lost. Hope keeps us alive and living through the darkness that enfolds us in the midst of life’s terrible situations. Those who have been incarcerated in prisons, POW camps and so on, have held onto the slim and slight notion of hope and survived where others have lost hope and let go.
This week’s readings (especially the Gospel – Mark 13:24-37) begin with images of the daily reality experienced by those whose lives are threatened through persecution, oppression and hopelessness. Many of these images are cosmic, with sun and moon darkened and overwhelmed. The forces of darkness are powerfully overwhelming the lives of ordinary people and their whole world. These apocalyptic images express the inner feelings of those who confront the powers and forces of pain and suffering in human life.
Into this chaotic and hopeless world, with the powerlessness of human life, hope emerges. In fleeting images of light and order, hope emerges and grows like yeast in a loaf; a seed rising from the depths of soil into the radiant light of the world. This hope is often intangible, a hope grasped but not held. It flows through our hands and head until it finds a foothold within our hearts. The soil of hope is a life that cries in desperation and despair, bereft of life and at the whim of painful emotions. Sometimes hope comes crashing in like waves in regular rhythm smashing the rocks until we awaken, angry or passionate, in response to where we find ourselves. Sometimes hope is the gentle friend that gives comfort and peace when we know that there is nothing for us to do but let what will be, be; to allow death to take its course and free us into another realm, another reality, another phase of being.
In these moments where hope emerges gently or with terrible fury, bursting the bubble of hopeless contemplation on that which never can or will be, we may see the fleeting face of God. This surprising face is glimpsed in the faces of others or the stories shared of hope lured, restored and thrust upon another unfortunate soul. This Conceiver of Everything creates a new possibility, a new belief, a new world of sorts that surpasses the hopeless reality of our fears and experience. God enters the darkness and enlightens us with the possibility of life to be lived, of a new joy breaking in with the dawning of a new reality in our midst.
In our Gospel, Jesus portrays the darkening experience of the world of oppressed minorities under Rome and Jerusalem. He warns that hope is the face of God in their midst, a Human One who speaks of and promises a different reality. This face of God dares to dream a new dream, becomes the dream that embraces human life. It is the dream that God is with and for us and will never let us go. It is the truth that light will overcome the darkness and release us to be who we are. He invites to remember that when the Jacarandas blossom, summer isn’t far away – winter’s cold does not endure forever. The dawn promises the light of a new day in our lives and God is present within, through and around this new day and our lives. God will not let us go – ever! There is hope!