Advent is a time that refocuses us spiritually on the thorny experience of hope. While hope is a universal trait of the human spirit, its thorniness lies in the way hope raises both expectation and fear of disappointment.
I cannot reflect on hope and the nature of expectation without hearing the voice of my fatalistic grandmother saying don’t hope- never be disappointed. I think we all instinctively know what she means. To hope is to risk wanting – and wanting raises the possibility of disappointment. But my grandmother’s expression, while it captures our fear of risk, nonetheless misses the essential point about hope. Hope is not primarily – a picture of a longed-for future – realizable or not. Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.
You see, hope is not a future dream – although we often think of hope in this way. Hope is a vision for a desired future but the purpose of hoping is to reorient ourselves in the present through future expectation. Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment. It’s a severe limitation on present time action and future possibility.
We are the ones we have been waiting for is a saying the origin of which has multiple attributions. We are the ones we have been waiting for is however the title of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book in which she comments that:
We are the ones we have been waiting for because we live in an age in which we are able to see and understand our own predicament. With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for was a phrase that Barack Obama borrowed – not to indicate that he or his administration were necessarily the ones desperately awaited – but that present generations of our society have the potential to really change American society’s direction of travel towards an – as yet – unrealized future. At the everyday level of experience we know the truth of this as we live through the chaos and upheaval of a period of momentous change – the kind of change that beckons us towards a future that will be so much more than a repetition of our past.
The shape of our future hope is important but too much dreaming or foreboding about the the future is a distraction. The purpose of hope is not to inhabit the future before it emerges but to focus our attention on the quality of our present time actions – both those we boldly embrace and those we fail to take.
Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility. Hope is a lifetime’s work. Advent reminds us that hope also requires courage in a world that often – like my grandmother’s saying – plays up the risk of hope’s disappointment.
The book of Isaiah begins around 740 BCE with the figure known as 1st Isaiah (chapters 1-40). The book concludes with the prophecies of the 3rd Isaiah (chapters 56-66) over two centuries later after the ending of the Babylonian Exile in 515. The combined prophecies of 1st, 2nd (chapters 40-56), and 3rd Isaiah form the mainstay of Advent’s O.T. lessons. In chapter 25, appointed for the 3rd Sunday in Advent we hear 1st Isaiah’s words: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.
Where is our God? Our God is here! How do we know God is here? We know because the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Isaiah’s hope is ambiguous with regard to time. His use of –shall– is suggestive of future events – but events determined by actions in present time.
If our Advent hope causes us to raise our eyes heavenwards waiting for future divine rescue from the mess we are making of the world – we will miss Advent hope as a present time statement that God is already here – among us – journeying alongside us through the turbulence of the present time.
The Gospels ascribe a prophetic quality of premonition to John the Baptist because we prefer to view prophets as visionaries of future time. But the prophet speaks first and foremost into present time – no matter how future oriented his words. As we all know, the present time fear of disappointment plays havoc with our expectations. And so we see in Matthew 11 that even the legendary John the Baptist is subject to the fear of disappointed expectation. John – languishing in Herod’s prison – has become anxious because Jesus seems not to be fulfilling his expectations. The doubt arises in his mind – maybe he’d got it wrong and Jesus is not the promised one – afterall. So he sends his disciples to enquire of Jesus – are you the one or are we to wait for another?
Jesus quotes Isaiah 25 back to John telling John’s disciples to go tell him what you hear and see! The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear – and just to up the ante he adds – the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Here the point not to be missed is that Jesus takes Isaiah’s words – couched as future hope – and renders them a description of present time reality.
We are the ones we have been waiting for focuses our attention firmly on the present time in which hope is not a future dream but a present-time activity. Of course, there is a hidden irony here. Our usual Advent question: what are we waiting for and why are we still waiting? – is not perhaps the question after all.
The great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich wrote:
On the 3rd Sunday in Advent – what are we waiting for becomes who are we waiting for? Allowing for an appropriate sense of humility, if we are not to be the ones we have been waiting for – then who will be?