Advent is a time of waiting. All life actually is. The expectation of a good that is to come, the hope for something beautiful and great to happen, is part of our nature as human beings. Without even realizing it, we wait. Yet we experience that hope is a difficult virtue, perhaps the most difficult. We know the words of Peguy:
Faith does not surprise me.
It’s not surprising.
I am so resplendent in my creation …
Charity, says God, that doesn’t surprise me.
It’s not surprising.
These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for each other. …
What surprises me, says God, is hope.
And I can’t get over it.
This little hope who seems like nothing at all.
This little girl hope.
(The Portal of the Mystery of Hope)
Why is it difficult to hope? First of all, because evil exists. Every day we see the evil that is spread throughout the world and it seems to win. Even more, the evil within us seems to triumph. We are sinners and we always fall into the same sins. Despite our good intentions, we do not see improvements. It seems as if Christ does not keep the promise that he has awakened from our encounter with him.
We need to return to the freshness of the beginning, rediscovering hope with a more mature awareness. Where can we learn to hope again? One of the places that God makes available to us is the Holy Scripture. By meditating it, we can form and strengthen in us a new vision of the world, which is that of faith. We want to purify our hope, looking at some great biblical figures who lived with expectation with great intensity.
Abraham’s vocation consists of a great promise and the demand for a great sacrifice. God tells him: “Go forth from your land […] to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you” (Gen 12:1-2). The promise of descendants and of a new country is related to the call to leave his country. Scripture does not report any hesitation: when God calls, Abraham obeys. He obeys because he trusts in the promise, the promise that shakes some strings of his heart that had seemed rusty. Abraham wanted descendants, but had stopped believing that his wish could come true. It was a desire that he had buried. But here appears a new and unexpected event: God speaks to him and awakens the desire for life.
Along with the descendants, God also promises a new land. When Abraham leaves, the two promises are not yet realized. Their fulfillment is simply announced. Abraham does not have the strength to carry them out by himself. The object of his hope is beyond his capabilities. This is an important feature of Christian hope: it exceeds the possibilities of man. Albert Camus urged: “Be realistic, ask for the impossible.” Because it is beyond our abilities, hope always finds its origin outside of us, has to be suggested from the outside, from an unforeseen event. Massimo Camisasca notes that the problem of hope lies not so much that it rests on something we do not yet see, but in the fact that it is based on something that we cannot manipulate or control (cf.. Riflessioni sulla speranza, Genoa, Edward Arnold 2006, 15 ).
There is another fact that surprises us: Abraham left his country, his city, his home, everything that he holds dear. The move was definitive. He would never return. His departure introduces into the world’s perception of history as a path toward a goal. It introduces the awareness of the usefulness of time. It does not consist in an eternal cycle of birth and death, where it starts and ends always at the same point, but it is a movement toward a more luminous future. Time, the life of man, begins to make sense. The present moment acquires weight because it is oriented to the future.
Don Massimo writes: “If Christ had encountered us on the road, he would have looked at us seeing in us what we ourselves do not see: a boundless beauty more glorious and more intense than what appears to us, and yet, it is not fake, it is not absent. Then we would have perceived in his eyes not only a love and an extraordinary rapture, as if at that moment he saw the most beautiful thing in the world, but also a sadness and an equally great trepidation “(Reflections on Hope, 28-29).
Hope is not an escape, but a transfiguration of the world that makes it possible to confront. It is a strength that puts life in motion. The sadness in the eyes of Jesus upon us measures our potential for improvement. Besides, he never promised a comfortable life. Instead, with His coming, that is, with the entrance of hope in the world, the world has become a battlefield, the theater of a battle that can be fought primarily within each of us. There is no hope without a serious engagement with life.
For Abraham, what is the meaning of time that passes? Along his path he grows in the certainty that God provides, that everything moves towards the good. Climbing Mount Moriah, the place fixed for the sacrifice, Isaac asked his father what will be offered on the altar. Abraham responded, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). These words contain perhaps the synthesis of his whole life. He learned that God always enters in the events of the world to show his goodness. “God provides” means: “God loves me and takes my whole life to fruition.” Abraham does his part, obeying orders that God gives him, climbs the mountain, builds the altar, looks for wood, even puts his son on the altar and ties him. But it is God who provides. He is our hope. By placing a great promise in the life of Abraham, God opens to all people the path of hope without end.
The writings of the prophets also help us to hope. The prophets reread the history of their people and help us to recognize the signs of God’s presence in the past. In this way the great hope is rekindled for all those who live their lives dragging their existence day to day. They especially reread the story of Exodus, but also remembering the figures of the patriarchs. During Advent, the Church proposes in particular the reading of the prophet Isaiah.
He lives during the Babylonian captivity, in dark times for the Jews, who are far from the promised land and slaves of the enemy. In this context, the prophet evokes the figure of Abraham to renew the promises made to him and his descendants. “Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth; When he was but one I called him, I blessed him and made him many. Yes, the Lord shall comfort Zion and have pity on all her ruins; Her deserts he shall make like Eden, her wasteland like the garden of the Lord; Joy and gladness shall be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of song” (Is 51:2-3).
Isaiah does not deny that the present moment is hard and immersed in darkness. But he shows that light shines in the darkness, that there is a word full of promise, which is his very word. There are two types of people who do not hope for justice: those who want to do it alone, that is, the arrogant, and those who do not believe that God is interested in the path of the world, that is, the fatalistic and resigned. But there are also people who have the humility to hope for justice, that is, that God will carry out his plan. In the latter, the prophet invites his to remember their history. Without memory there is no hope. Without remembering to “having already received a great gift,” as Peguy said, one cannot expect a perfect happiness in the future.
The prophet is not primarily someone who knows how to predict the future. Rather, he knows how to read history and, from it, also the present. That’s why, to the Jews who are in Babylon, Isaiah reminded them of Abraham and Sarah. He invited the Jews who are oppressed and exiled to look to their ancestors. They were infertile, yet have been promised numerous descendants and this promise has begun to be realized. Even the exile must be interpreted in the light of this promise.
Hope in God changes the present, makes us free from the current conditions. Jeremiah, for example, invites the exiles, who are desperate and no longer wish to work or get married, not to resign and to continue to build (Cf. Jer 29:4-7). Such behavior is possible for those who have faith in a promise that exceeds the current situation.
The prophets help us to read our past under a promise toward the future. They do not limit themselves to showing a glorious past, but open us to a novelty that exceeds our abilities of imagination. This is not to turn back, but forward. God promises more: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21,5). We proceed from miracle to miracle, we receive grace upon grace, we walk from glory to glory. It is the true law of the spiritual life: we can never stop, we must continually let ourselves be drawn by the mercy of God. “On the way of life, not to progress is to regress,” says St. Bernard. This desire to move, not to sit on past successes, is the sign of an authentic Christian life. Because through our adherence to God’s plan one realizes His promise, we are called to go out more and more from our house to discover new lands.
In chapter 60, Isaiah explains in a brilliant way the object of our hope. The entire chapter is dedicated to the heavenly Jerusalem, that is, to heaven. Expressed with poetic images, it is a perfect description of hope.
The first thing that the prophet promises immediately, from the beginning of the chapter, is the breaking of the veil that prevents us from seeing the glory of God. “Arise! Shine, for your light has come, the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you . Though darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds, the peoples, upon you the Lord will dawn, and over you his glory will be seen” (Isaiah 60:1-2).
We are created to look at God, to contemplate Him. Only direct contemplation of God can fulfill the desire of our hearts. Isaiah also alludes to the great joy that will fill us in that moment: “Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall throb and overflow” (Is 60:5).
The second element of the promise of Jerusalem is the coming together of people. As we suffer from not seeing God, so also we suffer from disunity with our brothers. “Nations shall walk by your light, kings by the radiance of your dawning. Raise your eyes and look about: they all gather and come to you” (Is 60:3-4). Christian hope is not aimed only at the individual contemplation of God, but to communal contemplation. All aspects of the Christian life are essentially inserted into communion. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot live without belonging to a community. Reading the text carefully, we note with some surprise that the prophet speaks not only of the people of Israel. He includes in his vision even the pagan people around him. All will bring their offerings to a common worship. These verses contain a truly missionary vision.
In the last verses of chapter 60, Isaiah further specifies its promise: this common worship will never end, it is not temporary, but eternal. “The Lord will be your light forever, your God will be your glory. No longer will your sun set, or your moon wane; For the Lord will be your light forever, and the days of your grieving will be over” (Isaiah 60: 19-20).
Hope is about a good that will never pass away, an eternal good. Only an eternal hope has the power to truly change the present moment. Benedict XVI wrote in the introduction of the Encyclical Spe Salvi: “The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.”
The good that we hope to achieve must be great, that is, it must be eternal. Everything that passes away is too little for our heart. We cannot live without the hope of eternity. It allows you to face any trial in the present moment with the knowledge that it is an important step towards happiness.
A third biblical figure who teaches us hope is John the Baptist. He is the greatest of the prophets. He is between the Old and the New Covenant, is the last of the first and the first of the last. He who others prophets have only been able to announce, he indicates. With him the purpose of the journey of humanity that began with Abraham become more luminous, and the conversion of the heart’s desire, preached by the prophets, finds its true object. In the end, true hope is not wanting a promised land or numerous descendants, or longing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. He who truly hopes desires Christ. It was John the Baptist who was the first to point out “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).
John the Baptist
John the Baptist was the only prophet who met the Savior in person. Therefore he was also the most joyful of all prophets. He was six months in the womb of his mother when he rejoiced when he recognized Jesus in Mary’s womb. Such joy filled his life. The Baptist lived in the joyful memory of his first encounter with the Savior. In fact, he defined himself as the “friend of the Bridegroom” who rejoices at hearing his voice (Jn 3:29).
Knowing true joy, he did not want to stoop to fleeting joys. This corresponds to that aspect of his life that is the desert. John led an austere life, away from the entertainment in the world, “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6-7). He did not want to enjoy anything, but that encounter with Jesus. He did not want to be comforted by other things.
The experience of the only true joy was needed for his mission so that he could invite people to repentance in preparation for the joy of the encounter. In the words of John the Baptist were a great force. He wanted to shake his contemporaries who were attentive only to their temporal interests and totally distracted from God. “He said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’”(Lk. 3:7-9).
Where did John the Baptist receive the strength to insult and threaten his contemporaries, to the point of shaking them deep in their consciences? From the experience of intimate communion with Jesus and with the great hope for the men who came to him. His tirades were first of all a witness to Christ. In the fourth Gospel, the task of being a witness fully defines the mission of the Baptist: “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (Jn 1:6-7). John the Baptist was violent because he was a genuine witness. He had seen the light, he knew it and wanted it to spread throughout the world. He does not tolerate darkness.
Extreme decision and extreme sweetness live together in him. The encounter with Christ made him sweet because he was filled with joy, but also violent, because it introduced him to the holiness of God. John had a very keen sense of sin and penance. We cannot encounter Christ, the Holy One, without feeling the need for purification. God is and always will be totally Other. His presence fills us with joy and at the same time with desire to change, to walk. Saints have a great sense of sin and therefore a great desire for conversion. In this way, even the confession of sins is always an expression of hope.
John the Baptist lived a deep virginity towards people. We see this especially in the latter part of his life. He had no claim of ownership over his disciples. He was the greatest prophet, his preaching was a resounding success, attracting crowds, and was esteemed by the powerful. But when Jesus came and many left him to follow him, the Baptist vanished, happy that he could serve. After having done his task, he sank into hiding. He was put aside, disappeared. Where did he get such freedom? From hope, true hope, which is not so much desire for personal success as in the desire of the coming of the Kingdom of God. To the extent he favored this coming, the Baptist considered his life successful.
We meditated on hope as testified by some biblical figures. Where can we find it? Is it not a virtue too big? From one point of view, it is necessarily so because it has God as its object. So where does the strength and possibility of true hope come from?
In a homily of Benedict XVI, I found an answer that is in some way shocking. He says that we can hope to contemplate God because God hopes in us. He says: “Here, then, is the surprising discovery: my, our hope is preceded by the expectation which God cultivates in our regard! Yes, God loves us and for this very reason expects that we return to him, that we open our hearts to his love, that we place our hands in his and remember that we are his children. This attitude of God always precedes our hope, exactly as his love always reaches us first (cf. I Jn 4: 10)” (Homily, Celebration of First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, 1st December 2007).
As our hope exceeds our strength, so to the hope of God exceeds our strength. He desires a response, but, despite being all-powerful, he does not want to force anything. God desires a free response. He knocks at our door, the door of our heart, and asks to come in, to be welcomed in our longing hearts.