First Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)

Mark, within a brief five verses, uses the injunction “watch” three times. Watch means that we are called to be alert, to wake up…and smell the incense.

Remember Jesus’ words: “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [MT 24:42] Remember Jesus’ words when he took Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane on the night before he died? “Remain here and watch with me.” Remember Jesus’ words to Peter when he returned from that prayer: “Could you not watch for even an hour?”

Today I would like to reflect on how to watch. I am going to talk about a topic rarely mentioned: hope, as in faith, hope and love.

I find that Christian hope is best defined as “being open to surprise,” a definition provided by the Benedictine brother, David Steindl-Rast. Hope is a virtue that can exist only when supported like a hammock at its two ends: faith in Abba at the one end and Abba’s unconditional love for us at the other. If you trust God and bask in God’s love, you can be open to surprise in life: hope.

We can be open to surprises that will come our way. Hope is not optimism sprinkled with holy water, as some would have it. Hope is often misunderstood and mistaken for hopes - with an “s”. A proportion with faith may be helpful. Faith is to the beliefs that we hold as hope is to hopes that we have. That is, just as saving-faith, trust, is the important underpinning to creedal-faith / beliefs [“I believe in one God, etc.}, so hope, openness to surprise, is the important underpinning for hopes we have. Both beliefs and hopes are distracting look-alikes for faith and hope.

Examples of hopes would be: that our team will win, that everyone will be healthy, that everyone in the family will get along. Hopes are always the direct object of a sentence that begins: “I hope that…” The common denominator for hopes is something I can imagine. Hope is far more profound than hopes

So, what is the relationship of hope to hopes? Question: when our hopes are shattered, what is left? Answer: hope! If a person has hopes without hope underpinning his hopes - and then has his hopes shattered, the person is shattered.

Hope is the seedbed of hopes; when one’s hopes are shattered, a new crop of hopes will spring up overnight, expressed, for example, “Wait ‘til next year.”

Dag Hamersjold said it so well about two important virtues, gratitude and hope: “For all that has been, thanks, lord, thanks [gratitude]; for all that will be, yes, lord, yes.” [Hope – openness to surprise].

Advent is the season for becoming more aware of hope and practicing hope, a season to arouse our watchfulness for the surprises that we experience daily, so that hope becomes an active attitude, like faith (trust), and unconditional love. Hope, with practice, can become as natural as breathing.

How do we “practice”? Faith in God or in another is deepened by trusting, isn’t it? Love for god or for another is deepened by loving, isn’t it? Being open . . . To surprise deepens hope in God or in another.

Hope provides a wonderful, God-given coping dynamic: in practical terms: we say, “Yes, lord, yes” before we say, “Oh, no.” This is key! Remember, hope can happen only when supported by faith and by love. It does not stand on its own. It has the needed support of faith and love.

We can learn something about hope from its opposite; the opposite of hope is not hopelessness, for hope thrives on hopelessness; the opposite of hope is despair - being shattered. Despair comes from giving God or another an ultimatum: “I’ve got it all figured out; there is no other solution than mine.” No possibilities for surprise.

We believe the Lord Jesus has already come; the kingdom of God is already in our midst! We also believe that the Lord will come again. There is tension in this notion of the “already, and the not yet.” In the now, the in-between time, God’s enduring grace and unending presence is always with us.

Advent reminds us that we need to be aware of this and to be open to the God of unimaginable surprises - in hope.