We Wait in Joyful Hope: An Advent Reflection

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Such is the petition spoken by the priest at the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer at mass.[i] While not particular to the Advent season, it strikes me as an appropriate frame for this time of hopeful awaiting the coming (adventum) of Christ.

As others have observed on this blog, waiting—particularly this joyful, hopeful waiting—is not easy.  We quickly become irritated and anxious when we have to wait in lines, wait to be served, wait to hear about the status of a proposal or application we’ve submitted.  For the past year, I’ve been waiting for a kidney transplant, and many months have gone by when I could do nothing to hasten this process, facing one unforeseen delay after another.  One of the first things the transplant surgeon told me was that there’s no such thing as a “routine” procedure in transplant medicine: every body is different, and while they can give a general timeline and expectations, I shouldn’t necessarily assume this will be my experience.  This process has not only been an extended lesson in letting go of any illusions of control over my life, but it has also shown me that while waiting is an inescapable aspect of our human condition of finite being-in-time, it is neither regrettable nor something to be borne with resentment or passive resignation.  I don’t know exactly what is to come or when, but this time of waiting is, like Advent, a time to prepare both materially and spiritually for a new and unforeseeable experience of healing and hope.

In his book Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless, William Lynch, S.J. presents an illuminating account of the relationship of hope, imagination, and the ability to wait, particularly as they pertain to those facing metal illness.  Lynch defines hope as a sense of the possible, “the fundamental knowledge and feeling that there is a way out of difficulty, that things can work out,” (32).  Hope, he explains, is present in human life not merely as a virtue of emergency or crisis—still less one of resignation—but rather “it is present in each moment as it looks to the next . . .everything we do in life is based on the hope that doing will get us somewhere, though sometimes we know not where,” (33-34).  One of the fundamental claims of the book is that hope is bound up with imagination—not in the sense of fantasy or flights from reality, but in the sense of envisioning possibility and seeking wider or different perspectives on our situation:

The great traditional meaning of hope as that which helps us transcend our endless forms of impossibility, of prison, of darkness, is complemented by an equally classic understanding of the imagination.  For one of the permanent meanings of imagination is that it is the gift that envisions what cannot yet be seen, the gift that constantly proposes to itself that the boundaries of the possible are wider than they seem.  Imagination, if it is in prison and has tried every exit, does not panic or move into apathy but sits down to try to envision another way out.  It is always slow to admit that all the facts are in, that all the doors have been tried and that it is defeated.  It is not so much that it has vision as that it is able to wait, to wait for a moment of vision that is not yet there, for a door that is not yet locked.  It is not overcome by the absoluteness of the present moment (35).

There are many reasons why it would be easy to feel overcome by the darkness of our present historical moment.  Beyond the frightening unknowns of a Trump presidency, we are aware of the fragility of our global politics and ecosystem, the existence of a refugee crisis of unprecedented scale and complexity, the deep divides and apparent impasses in our “post-truth” world, and the ways that all these factors create such a vicious cycle of fear, exclusion, and violence that intervention seems hopeless.  With so many overwhelming unknowns, it is tempting for our waiting to turn to the apathy of despair, which waits because there is nothing else to do, nowhere to go—a kind of resignation that has stopped looking for new possibilities.  The promises of this Sunday’s lectionary—that “one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war anymore,” and that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand”—seem impossibly distant from the darkness of our world.

And yet we affirm: We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior.

Here, Lynch’s second claim about hope and imagination—namely, that “hope not only imagines; it imagines with” others in community (23-24) becomes crucial.  Our sense of possibility is enlarged by the act of imagining with others in mutuality and collaboration, and for this reason Lynch is deeply critical of our culture’s individualism and tendency to associate a sense of shame with the need for help.  “The truth is that hope is related to help in such a way that you cannot talk about one without talking of the other.  Hope is truly on the inside of us, but hope is an interior sense that there is help on the outside of us,” (40).  This dialectic of the interior and exterior dimensions of hope prevents the stagnant waiting of despair, as we open ourselves to receiving help from and extending mercy to others.  Such human experiences of giving and receiving mercy fortify our hope in a God of merciful, incarnate love who delivers us from oppression, heals our brokenness, and shines light in our darkness.

Pope Francis underscores this connection in his recent apostolic letter:

Mercy gives rise to joy, because our hearts are opened to the hope of a new life . . .We need witnesses to hope and true joy if we are to dispel the illusions that promise quick and easy happiness through artificial paradises. The profound sense of emptiness felt by so many people can be overcome by the hope we bear in our hearts and by the joy that it gives. We need to acknowledge the joy that rises up in a heart touched by mercy (3).

He continues and elaborates upon this message by directing his readers to scripture and prayer, to the celebration of the sacraments, and—perhaps above all—to the creation of a “culture of mercy . . . in which no one looks at another with indifference” through a renewed experience of encounter with others, particularly in the works of mercy (20).  The social character of mercy “requires us to banish indifference and hypocrisy, lest our plans and projects remain a dead letter. May the Holy Spirit help us to contribute actively and selflessly to making justice and a dignified life not simply clichés but a concrete commitment of those who seek to bear witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God,” (19).  It is these concrete commitments—not to issues and ideologies, but to people and places—that nourish our hope.

Our Advent waiting, then, is not the passive acceptance of reality as we currently perceive it nor the inevitable recurrences of a closed system, but an active and creative collaboration with others, preparing our hearts and our world for the coming of Christ, which we now perceive only dimly.  And so we wait in joyful hope, trusting that by imagining and preparing and waiting together,  God’s light may come to our broken world.


In days to come,

the mountain of the LORD’s house

shall be established as the highest mountain.

All nations shall stream toward it;

many peoples shall come and say:

“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,

to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may instruct us in his ways,

and we may walk in his paths.”

For from Zion shall go forth instruction,

and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

and impose terms on many peoples.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares

and their spears into pruning hooks;

one nation shall not raise the sword against another,

nor shall they train for war again.

O house of Jacob, come,

let us walk in the light of the Lord!

[i] Actually, the current (2011) English translation of the mass, which seeks a more literal rendering of the Latin, reads “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” This is, in my opinion, one of several places where something is lost in moving from a dynamic to a literal translation of the mass.