Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 26, 2001
A choice: hope or hopelessness
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a bishop who, watching his palace being burned to the ground, was heard to exclaim, "Ah! There is nothing like a cleansing fire to free the soul."
Here is a story for Advent, the season of Christ's coming. It is particularly relevant in an era when we identify the time before Christmas as a time for accumulating possessions rather than divesting ourselves of that which keeps us from God.
The late Thomas Merton once wrote an essay titled, "Advent: Hope or Delusion?" For the atheist, the only authentic stance is to rid ourselves of the myth that there is A Great Someone who will take away the tragic realities of the world and make us feel good. Our situation is hopeless and hope itself is a delusion. Honesty requires us to admit that there is nothing more.
For the Christian, the honest stance is not to brush aside the question or to argue it away with proofs of God's existence. The honest response is to hold on to the question and have hope while confronting the possibility of hopelessness. This was the last 18 months of the life of St. Th‚rŠse of Lisieux, a time of horrible blackness where she nevertheless held on to hope with a tenacious, seemingly groundless faith.
What is the evidence of God's coming? What is the difference between the world and us? What is the holiness of the Church?
The evidence, the difference and the holiness consist less in a trail of good works and good cheer, than in self-emptying. It consists in poverty of spirit. Christ can only increase if I decrease.
Christ begins where I and my desires and plans end. When my desires and I become smaller, there is more room for Jesus. Spiritual freedom increases right where my spiritual autonomy and willfulness shrinks.
This can only happen in the midst of hope - a solid faith that Christ will fill the gap. The victory of Christ is not the victory of "us" over "them." It is the diminishment of me so that Christ can rule where formerly I ruled.
Advent comes not because the poor have heard the good news but because the poor are the good news. It is in the spiritually poor that we see the kingdom unfolding. If we are to be good news, we have to become poor, not necessarily physically, but in spirit. When our "wealth" disappears, there is room for hope.
But while our coming to hope may take place in the silence of our hearts, the life of hope is not solitary. For Christ comes to fill the emptiness with his loving presence. And when my emptiness meets that love, I can do only one of two things - run away in fear or race forward with an open embrace. There is no middle way.
If I choose to accept God's presence then my life will be changed. The precise manner it changes depends on God's hope for each individual. It will be changed by a greater opening up to the Spirit of God and to God's presence in the world. We cannot remain stiff, sullen or belligerent when we have chosen to empty ourselves and allowed God's love to replace our poverty with an unimagined wealth.
But first we ask and hold on to the question: Is Advent hope or delusion? If we daily choose hope, our fear and our possession-mongering will disappear. We will truly deserve the name "children of God." We will find a presence so loving and overwhelming that fear will be cast aside.
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