Autumn is turning to winter in Columbus, Ohio, as 2016 draws to a close. It snowed yesterday – just a dusting but a sign that the season is changing. It’s been a hard year. I’ve never really been this anxious about what comes next. I need Advent this year, more than I ever have before.
Advent reminds us of hope. In the church liturgical year, Advent is the period before Christmas where we dwell in the waiting. The hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is actually for Advent not Christmas. It’s somber, grieved, and hopeful.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
A hymn in a minor key speaks of shadow and tells you to rejoice. That’s the spirit of Advent – a season for remembering the context of the incarnation. Israel had not been independent for centuries. One empire after another had oppressed her. Injustice reigned and God was silent – perhaps complicit, perhaps impotent.
Historically speaking, what we now know to be Judaism was formed during this period. It wasn’t until during and after the Babylonian exile that the Jewish people forsook the gods of the surrounding nations. Most of the books of the prophets and wisdom literature were written during and after exile. Scripture itself was largely compiled and assembled in this period – even if its roots were more ancient. I find that incredibly hopeful; in the midst of foreign oppression, the Jewish people found a way to sustain hope by telling stories and by practicing defiance wherever they could.
It’s not in what most including Jews consider Scripture proper, but the story of the Maccabees is incredibly inspiring to me because of its simplicity. They don’t really overthrow the despot; they just defy him and show him that he’s not in charge of as much as he thinks he is. Jews have been celebrating that defiance for over two millennia since in Hanukkah because a miracle happened – the oil for the lamps lasted far longer than it should have. That feels like such a small thing, but to the people it meant that God had heard their cry which was always the start of deliverance.
Two thousand years after the incarnation and we still need hope for deliverance. Regardless of your political or theological views, we can all agree that if this was the promise of deliverance, it’s lacking. Death reigns. Hate reigns. Injustice reigns. We don’t love our neighbors. We often don’t even see our neighbors in their full humanity.
Even the most wealthy and powerful among us know suffering. There’s no doubt I’m among the most privileged human beings ever to have walked this earth and yet I’m not immune.
I may have lost some optimism in 2016 but I have not lost hope. I refuse to lose hope, but hope demands action.
I may fear for the future of my friends who feel threatened as Trump takes office. I can still listen to them tell their stories and share their own suffering quite different from mine and truly see them. I can stand with them in the appropriate moment. I can call my senators and representatives imploring them to advocate for justice.
I may fear what I’m seeing in our public discourse where it seems resentment has taken root – there’s some of that on both sides of the aisle. I can still take the time to listen to the concerns of people who may have voted differently than me, not imputing bad motives on them. Then once I’ve heard and understood I can highlight the voices of those who see it differently. That’s a burden I can’t ask my friends who feel more directly threatened to bear.
I may fear for the earth as I ponder what reversing what little effort we’ve made toward greater sustainability would mean for the future. I can still evaluate my own ecological practices and I can speak up for what I believe to be right.
If you like me have been feeling anxious about our future, let’s agree not to get complacent. Let’s work hard. Let’s make those around us feel seen. Let’s give time and resources in support of justice. Let’s tell stories and engage with the arts. I know of no other way more effective to engage the heart.
On the other hand, if you don’t really understand why people feel threatened or anxious then let’s talk. Let’s agree not to presume the worst in each other and not to assume we already know each other’s concerns. We may learn from one another.
Also, to be clear, if Trump had lost we’d still have the same issues. He’s not the embodiment of oppression and Hillary Clinton would not have been the embodiment of deliverance. Rather, Trump’s election simply makes some of my concerns more stark, but their roots are far deeper.
There are oppressive forces in the world but those forces are collectively sourced – not exclusively the result of people in political power. In that sense, we are far more empowered to change things than we realize and that power is most manifest between elections when we’re not as focused on which side we belong to. The hope I’m talking about doesn’t expire four years from now at the next election.
Hope is not trite. Hope is not naive. Hope is not weak. Hope asserts that the story is not yet over and labors for justice.
I don’t know what the future holds. I’m not going to say everything is going to be alright. There’s a lot at risk. I do know that leaning into an active hope is the most joyful way I know to live. We can actually grow the kind of community we want to see by taking thousands – perhaps millions – of little steps toward one another.