Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, as even his critics admit, was a man of hope. Indeed his whole vision of things is generally criticized for being too hopeful. So, in trying to explain hope and advent, allow me a Teilhard story:
Teilhard was a scientist, and a good one, but he was also a Christian, a priest, and a man whose ultimate vision of things was formed by the gospels. Central to his whole system of thought was his rock-bottom belief that ultimately all of history, cosmic and human, would come together, in Christ, into one community of life and love (as promised by Jesus and as summarized in the early Christian hymn, Ephesians 1, 3-10). This vision was the wide framework within which he ultimately set his scientific theories. But he was surrounded by colleagues, both Christian and secular, who had a far-less hopeful view of things. One day he was challenged this way: “You have an enchanted view of history, believing that everything will one day culminate in a wonderful `kingdom’ of peace and love, but suppose we blow up the world in a nuclear war, what happens to your schema of things then?”
His response to that question is a textbook definition of hope: “If we blow up the world it would be a great tragedy because it would set things back millions of years. But history will still one day culminate in a kingdom of peace and love, not because my theory says so, but because God promised it and in the resurrection has shown the power to bring this about, despite the things we do.” That’s hope, to be able to say: “It might take a million years or so longer, but it will happen because God promised it.”
By what is this characterized? Let’s begin with a certain via negativa. Hope is not wishful thinking, natural optimism, or an educated theory based upon CNN.
Indeed, hope is not wishful thinking, the simple longing for something wonderful to happen to us. I can wish to win a lottery, marry the most beautiful person in the world, or score the winning goal in the world cup, but that isn’t hope. It’s pure wish. Similarly, hope is not optimism; a natural temperament, however pleasant, which is perennially upbeat and always sees the positive side of things. Finally, hope is also not a positive diagnosis based upon a shrewd assessment of the facts. Jim Wallis once quipped: “Put not your faith in CNN!” The same holds true for BBC, CBC, NBC, ABC, ITV, SKY NEWS, and WORLD NEWS. One does not ultimately ground hope on whether the world situation seems to be improving or worsening. Hope does not go up and down like the stock market because, in the end, it is not based upon the empirical facts as these are reported on the news.
Hope is believing in the promise of God and believing that God has the power to fulfil that promise.
What is that promise? God has promised that history (our private histories, our communal history, and cosmic history) will one day come together in an ecstatic oneness, a heaven, a paradise, a community of life around Christ and in God within which there will be no tears and no death. This will not be a community of life focused on “food and drink” but one that takes it very breath from love, justice, peace, friendship, affection, and shared delight in a common spirit, the Holy Spirit.
And what power will bring this about? The power that God showed in the resurrection of Jesus, the power to bring a dead body back to life, to redeem what’s been lost, to write straight with crooked lines, and to bring people together, despite and beyond hatred, sin, selfishness, mistakes, tragedy, resistance, death, and all that will ever be seen on CNN.
To live in hope is to live in the face of that promise and that power and, in that light, to fundamentally shape both our memories and our future. As regards memory, to hope is to look back on our lives and see no need to count the losses, underline the hurts, play the victim, or stew in bitterness because all our wounds and losses can be redeemed as part of a greater promise. The same holds true for our future. All our plans and schemes must reflect the wider plan of God and we, like Teilhard, should be prepared to live in great patience as we wait for the finished symphony.
Mary, Jesus’ Mother, is the pre-eminent figure of this. She shows us hope: Not only did she believe the promise, she became pregnant with it, gestated it, gave it her own flesh, went through the pains of childbirth to give it reality, and then nursed a fragile new life into a powerful adulthood that saved the world. In that, she needs imitation, not admiration.
Advent is the season for us to imitate Mary’s hope by, like her, gestating faith, God’s promise, into real flesh.