16 December 2010

A Bit on the Relationship of Hopes to Hope: Hopes as Obstacles to Deep Hope

Thursday, Third Week of Advent
Isaiah 54:1-10
Luke 7:24-30

Advent is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of God in any way he wills to do that. For this reason it is a time in which we prepare ourselves to be surprised by and grateful to a God who is truly unimaginable. At bottom then, Advent is a time for cultivating a deep hope which carries us through and beyond every exigency in life and opens us to reality which transcends all the specific hopes we hold onto. This deep hope is an orientation of our hearts. It is what traditional theology calls a virtue, an habitual way of approaching reality, an approach in which we see what is truly present and the God who grounds that.

There is therefore a distinction, and often a tension, between specific hopes and this deep or profound hope, this virtue which sustains us even when specific hopes have been dashed or shattered. The ironic thing is that among the obstacles to the virtue of Hope we might identify are the specific hopes we cling to --- sometimes all-too-tightly. This distinction and tension is at the heart of the readings for today.

In Isaiah we see this played out as the author lists the various seminal hopes we each have and the ways those are shattered. Women who dream of having children, and in fact, whose self-worth and significance in the People of God (Israel) is bound up with child-bearing remain barren. The hopes of married couples to live together to the end of their days are disappointed by the death of one of the spouses. Those who look to the intimate and exclusive love and commitment of a spouse are abandoned instead. Youth whose lives are full of personal promise ruin their futures by somehow shaming themselves and becoming bound to and by that failure and shame. Hopes here can block the development of deep Hope instead of being opportunities for inculcating the virtue. And yet, in spite of the ways hopes disappoint or are disappointed, Israel is called to something deeper, something transcendent and more eternal and sustaining. In particular, Israel is called to be open to a God who will surprise her with a life with him that is beyond imagining. Specific hopes are expressions of the imaginable. Hope opens us to the surprise of the unimaginable. Thus Isaiah outlines some really outrageous pictures of what Israel will come to know: a barrenness that will be made fruitful beyond all telling, an abandonment which is contrasted with a commitment which is undying and without limit or end and is redeemed by that covenant, a national smallness and marginality which will be transformed into centrality and worldwide scope as Israel is made a light to the nations.

Today's Gospel also contrasts Hope with hopes, the unimaginable with the imaginable, and it does so by pointing out a second way hopes may be an obstacle to deep hope, namely by our allowing our individual hopes to make us blind to the larger and more surprising ways in which God really does visit and dwell amongst us. In today's text from Luke Jesus turns to those who have been out in the desert to see John the Baptist and he asks them three times, "What did you go out to see?" The first two times the question is ironic: did you go out to see a reed swaying in the wind or someone in soft/rich clothes, someone who dresses as a King, for instance? Only the most foolish would have done this and most would easily answer, "Of course not!" The third time Jesus enlarges the question, "Did you go out to see a prophet?" and explains that yes indeed, that is precisely what they saw, but even more besides. In meeting John Bp people saw not JUST a prophet but the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah and Israel's reception of that Messiah. And of course, implicitly, the people to whom Jesus is speaking must begin to entertain the possibility that something even more unimaginable has occurred, namely, that they are looking at Emmanuel right here and now.

But, while Jesus focuses explicitly on the surprise and significance of John the Baptist, the text is also clear that some people allowed their hopes to prevent them from seeing what God was doing in their midst. The Pharisees and scholars of the Law "knew" what the Messiah and the final Prophet would look like and they grasped this hope a bit too tightly to allow themselves to recognize and be surprised by a God who would do the unimaginable in their midst.

The challenge of Advent is to prepare our hearts for Christmas. To that end we take time to become people who hold our hopes a little less tightly or rigidly so that profound hope may be the motive and orientation of our lives. We prepare ourselves in a way that 1) prevents the shattering of our hopes from overwhelming us with disappointment, and 2) allows us to see beyond those hopes to the deeper ways in which God surprises us. This preparation prevents our being disappointed or even scandalized or offended by the way he works his will among us. If we are not truly surprised by Christmas it is probably right to ask ourselves if we have not either let go of hope altogether or clutched at hopes so tightly we remained closed to the God of the surprising. In either case, we will have failed to be people of profound or deep hope, people whose God goes by the unimaginable name, Emmanuel!

NB: With gratitude to David Steindl-Rast, OSB, and his book, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer. Therein David draws the distinction between Hopes and Hope and speaks of the imaginable vs the unimaginable as well as Hope as unitive and hopes as potentially divisive. I have drawn liberally on his insights in this reflection. If you have not read this book, please get it for Christmas. It is one of the best books on the nature of prayer I know.