VÁCLAV HAVEL, the Czech poet and first president of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia, said: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
This is the quality of Christian hope. Our hope is not a refusal to face the facts of the world, dreaming of an ideal society, but a belief — in the face of those facts — that a better world is possible and worth striving for.
We know that there is something about women and men that cannot be explained in terms of economics, nor by where we have come from, nor by our genetic inheritance, but can be explained only in terms of where we are going — in other words, by our spiritual inheritance; the potential in us is more important than the actual.
Hope seeks this potential and is driven by it; it arises from a profound longing, a longing expressed in the “O” with which each of the antiphons begins. “O”, we cry out to God from the world as it is, longing for the world for which we hope.
Geoffrey Preston described the O as an echo from our emptiness; the cry “O come!” is about making space for God alone, a space that he can and does fill with his love, and praying these seven prayers of hope we ask that he will enlarge our capacity for love: “After all, our O is only the echo in time of the eternal O of God. It is because God longs for us that we thirst for him . . .
“The history of all God’s dealings with us can be read as a history of those repeated calls backwards and forwards between man and God” (Geoffrey Preston OP, Hallowing the Time: Meditations on the cycle of the Christian liturgy, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980).
HOPE leads us forward into the discovery of God’s new world. “[H]ere we have no continuing city, but we seek a city that is to come” (Hebrews 13.14). Hope looks to the future, but it does not forget what has gone before. The city that is to come is built on the faith and work of those who, before us, trusted in God and lived in his love.
Hope is the confidence that past, present, and future exist in a single continuity where the future is related to the same truth and living reality as the past and the present (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian life, SPCK, 2016).
Thus the prayers of the antiphons echo the yearning of those of every age and every culture who have longed for justice and peace, for freedom and forgiveness, for truth and inner strength, and for love.
For Christians, this yearning is renewed each year as we prepare in Advent to celebrate the birth of the Saviour at Christmas. Advent is the season of hope, a liminal season in which we stand at the threshold of God’s new dawn; it is a time to draw on his truth, and to ask questions that busyness drives out: Who are we? Where are we going? What is God calling us to become?
LIKE all liminal times, Advent is a time of waiting, a time of trust and longing. Times of waiting are particularly disturbing in modern life, where we expect certainty, where the waiting has been taken out of wanting, and where trust is in short supply. But waiting and trusting are basic to the journey of faith, because apprehending new truths cannot be accomplished in an instant, nor without longing.
There may be a flash of light, a moment of insight, but it takes time to assimilate the full meaning of what we have glimpsed and to let it become part of us. The patterns we use to interpret our experience are not the same as God’s patterns. The divine pattern is “new in every moment, and every moment is a new and shocking valuation of all that we have been” (T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”, Four Quartets, Faber & Faber, 1940/1944).
Placing our hope in Christ is about learning the pattern of God and the valuation that he places on all that we are and all that we can become. We need to be humble before God’s self-revelation in Jesus, open to receive from him the wisdom of humility. So, says Eliot, “the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.” This is the promise God holds out to us.
We catch a glimpse of its fulfilment at Christmas when, after all the preparations, the busyness of the world is hushed, and we know a moment of peace — a moment, perhaps, when, in the stillness, our soul dances.
IT IS in these moments that we are given a glimpse of eternity, and know that we do not hope in vain, that our waiting and longing will have their fulfilment. These are moments to return to when hope grows faint. And, if these moments of stillness elude us, it probably has something to do with the quality of our waiting.
For those who hope, waiting is not passive: it is an attentive waiting in anticipation of all that God will share with us through his Son. Praying the antiphons prepares us for the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus; we joyfully celebrate his birth because hope in him makes a new world possible.
The antiphons, if we catch their mood, will teach us to wait and trust, and to discover for ourselves that the hope he sets before us is “an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast” (Hebrews 6.19).
This is an edited extract from Light in the Darkness: Exploring the path of Christian hope by Peter Sills, published by Sacristy Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).
Podcast: Malcolm Guite: O Come, O Come: A journey through the Advent antiphons