by Rev’d Dr Andrew Cameron
For we Down Under, sufficient gifts have aligned to offer a little New Year’s relief. The welcome la ninã rains; low rates of COVID-19; a recovering economy; the chance, maybe, to see family again. As I write, a flare-up in NSW may steal back some of these gifts. But even so, we’re not coughing our way through fires, and the authorities are a lot more savvy about COVID-19 than was the case in early March. There are even vaccines around the corner.
‘Hope’ springs from how we think the world really works. We move in a culture where natural processes are thought to govern the backdrop of our lives, and economic processes our cultural lives. Hence rain, vaccines and jobs feel like ‘hope’.
But such hope is also fragile. Authorities are muscling-up again for border-closure, and international geopolitics offers no economic guarantees as alliances and markets realign. We ‘hope’ the calendar year ticking over to 2021 will ‘mean’ something. But of course, that is more wish than hope. It may easily be that events conspire against us again to cause some hopelessness, such as now is felt by millions in the plague-ridden northern winter.
In contrast, some say, Christianity offers a ‘sure and certain’ hope. But, frankly, how realistic is that? Christianity feels old some days, and (if you buy the evolutionary narrative), hopelessly recent on other days. There are just cleverer, more ‘sciency’, and more souped-up ways to live out there. Once the struts drop out from under it like that, Christian ‘hope’ also starts looking like a wish.
Can ‘hope’, then, really be found? Or are we humans just prone to wish, whether as Christians or not?
There are many short-term ‘hopes’ to get us by, and they are not to be scoffed at. Those prospects of a family gathering, the hope of better work, a small bit of relief from the effects of climate change; those are not nothing, and should be received as real.
On a different scale, the Christian story has always known it is old, very old, and that it signals a kind of Hope that arcs across our many small hopes. It arcs across sciency cleverness, and our souped-up ways of modern thinking, whatever real value these may have. It submits: this life is not pointless, and that despite your many setbacks and despairs, everything matters, and here’s proof.
It all felt weary, very weary, at the opening of Luke’s Gospel. It had been centuries since God had done anything radical. They’d been under the boot of several foreign powers, with Rome only the latest. Roman domination, with all the cutting-edge technology of Empire and war, was the latest souped-up way of being that made ancient Judaism, with all God’s covenants, a quaint anachronism and a distant memory.
But something happens, causing a young girl to exclaim ‘He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.’ Something happens, causing a decrepit, elderly man to speak of one coming ‘to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death’. Some low-wage workers hear ‘good news that will cause great joy’, ‘and on earth peace’ to those on whom God’s favor rests, because—there is a baby to go see.
Forget for a moment that we know about the man into whom this baby will grow. The big deal in their moment is that the baby is there, right in front of them, and is not just words or wishes. That baby was the real-time down-payment of God’s absolute commitment to the world—who then grew to become someone who lived to show how much everyday people matter; who died to prove God’s intent not to condemn the world in wrath; who was raised to show that God will not let us all end in nothingness; and whose ‘Spirit’ then flowed into the world, nudging growth and myriad good changes.
We Christians will find it hard, this year, to tune in to this kind of Hope. We’ve heard it before. We’re not unaffected by the stories of naturalism and economics. We’ve had an exhausting, anxious, draining and often horrible year.
But, this Hope spears across the long skies of history, like a comet, like an arrow pointing from whence we’ve come and to where we’ll be, even on the days our eyes are downcast on the mud and mire of our lives.
There are hopes, and there is this Hope, for you and I to find again.
Starting in that manger.