Back in the early summer I had a notion that we might be able to restore our normal pattern of worship around the middle of the autumn. It seemed like a conservative hope at the time. Yet here we are at Christmas with Covid cases rising once more, restrictions still in place in what we are permitted to do in church, and the spectre of a third national lockdown haunting us. It’s an odd time to be writing about hope.
Yet the season of Advent is all about hope. In our Christian faith, hope is the virtue that relates to our understanding of the future. It isn’t really the same as the hope that there may be some fine weather over the Christmas break, or the hope that we may emerge from the pandemic sooner rather than later. Those are reasonable things to hope for, but Christian hope takes a longer view. It has to do with the great sweep of human history and the plan of God that is unfolding within it.
This weekend we encounter a figure who had a startling grasp of this. Mary, the mother of Jesus, certainly understood that there was nothing hopeful in the short-term about what God was asking her to do. It would expose her to gossip, possibly outright contempt. It did, we learn from Saint Matthew, bring her close to a broken engagement. And in the end it exposed her to the dreadful agony of witnessing the death of her firstborn in the most cruel and sadistic way imaginable. It is a stretch to see this as ‘good news’.
To find the hope in it you need, as I mentioned, to take the longer view. The hope God offers is not for a comfortable, respectable existence in this world, with a vague aspiration to a peaceful afterlife. It is rather a call to join in the labour of building the Kingdom of God in this world, and the promise of sharing in God’s life for all eternity.
This is a better hope by far, but one that asks more of us than we readily acknowledge. Mary understood what it asked of her, and agreed to it.
I wish I could write this column promising that everything will soon be all right again, just the way we know it and like it. But I rather suspect that things will never again be quite as they were, and I have no confident notions of what might take their place.
Instead, I write on this final Sunday of Advent of a hope that operates on a longer timescale, a much longer timescale than we normally occupy. To discern that hope, to be brave enough to trust in it even when it is costly and painful, is what the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary inspires us to. May we be granted a share of that wisdom and courage in our own place and time, and may God bless you all,