It seems to me, of all the things Christians are called to do, hope is one of the hardest but the most rewarding. Some of us live in the past, where all our failures and misfortunes drag us down. Others live in the future, a future that promises great things that always seem to be just out of reach, but to actually have hope one must live in the present. The past tells us where we have been, and the future shows us where we can go, but it is in the present that we have the power to make the future. That power is based on hope. It is human nature to see a looming problem, like war, famine or tyranny, and to loose hope. We are overwhelmed by the magnitude of our problems, and to hang onto hope seems childish in the face of such overwhelming odds, but it only through hope that we have a chance at a better future. We as Christians, are called to have hope against all odds, put our problems in God’s hands and work in the present to save the future.
Our pasts have a great deal to teach us about what works and what doesn’t. It is the past that allows us to enjoy today and succeed tomorrow. Our past is full of lessons on how to have relationships, how to navigate the world, what gives us happiness and what takes that happiness away. The past is a terrific resource for us, but it can also be a bog that we get caught in, holding us fast and dragging us down. If we dwell on our past mistakes, instead of learning from them, we get stuck in a morass of self pity. Those who are stuck in their past mistakes or misfortunes cannot get past them and stagnate. Hope allows us to move beyond our failures to a better future where we can use those lessons to improve our lives.
Those who live in the future are never happy today. Their minds are filled with all the good things that will happen tomorrow and as such they miss all the good in their lives today. Often the future is a place to escape those things we find overwhelming today. We retreat into our Utopian vision of a future where we are smarter, richer, wiser and more attractive. But in doing that we undermine our ability to get wiser, smarter, richer and more attractive, because to get those things tomorrow, we must work for them today. The future is a great place to plan for but living there undermines that future. It is only in living today that we can effect our futures in a positive way.
Today, we may not be the the smartest man or the richest woman, but if we work to improve ourselves we can get there… powered by hope. It is the lack of hope that discourages us and stymies our efforts. Why struggle if there is no hope? The reality however, bolstered by the entire history of the human race, is that there is always hope. People miraculously go into remission from deadly cancers, tyrants fall at unexpected times and our loved ones get off drugs. There was no possible way Timoleon could have singlehandedly overthrown the tyrant of Syracuse, but he did. The problems facing Athens when Solon was elected were insurmountable, threatening the very existence of Athens, but Solon solved them. When Rome itself was burned to the ground and occupied by the Gauls, there was no possibility Rome could be retaken, but it was. The history of the human race is a story of hope against all odds. Even our very existence is a story of hope.
Those who don’t believe must do everything themselves. As the quintessential American Philosopher, William James taught, the philosophy of Christianity allows people to be calm in the knowledge that in the end God will sort it all out, but the atheist has no such hope. The poor atheist must take all the responsibility upon him or herself while a Christian can rely on God. To the atheist there is no hope, only struggle and pain, then a dirt bath. To choose hope over despair is not a cop out, it is the definition of wisdom. It is pragmatic to choose hope, and impractical to choose hopelessness, because it is hope that improves our lives and hopelessness that diminishes them. Regardless, God gave us free will, to choose hope or hopelessness.
The Christmas season is the time for hope. Christ came to save us from our own sins giving every one of us hope we can transcend them. He didn’t hang out with the Pharisees, he hung out with Prostitutes, Tax collectors and laborers. His message of hope was for everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful. Those with temporal power usually don’t lack hope what they lack is humility. Those of us who make up the mass of humanity however need hope. We are humbled every day by our demons. There is not a soul among us without some demon or two hounding him or her. It is through hope and the diligence that hope allows that we escape them and move to a better place. To a Christian there is even hope in death, the hope that we are saved by the actions of Jesus, hope that his life, death and resurrection brought into the world.
On Christmas eve, it is essential that we understand the message of hope that Jesus taught, accept the gift of hope he gave and live in that hope. Of course we fall now and then, what child has learned to walk without a bruised knee? It isn’t in giving up that we succeed, it is in giving in, to the hope Jesus gave us, and using that hope by working to make our lives and the world a better place, while relying on God to get the details we can’t, that is how we advance as human beings. The message of the Christmas season is one of hope, not every problem we face will be solved, nor that every tyrant will be overthrown, but that in our personal lives, even in death, Christians have hope. It is the legacy of our Savior.