One way to read the story of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple in Luke 2:22-40 is to read it as a story about keeping hope alive. Simeon and Anna, both prophets, were well along in years. For many years they had been waiting for “the redemption of Israel” and for God’s salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples” as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” In eschatological terms they were looking for a world of peace and restorative justice, a world healed and put right.
This is what the early Christians were longing for when they talked about the second coming of Jesus. They were looking for a new world order of equity and equality (Gal. 3:28), in essence “a new creation” (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17). The early Christians employed the language of “apocalyptic” to talk about this new world, which is the language of poetry, of metaphor and symbol, of exaggeration (hyperbole).
Some Christians think that God will intervene at some point in the human struggle to bring about this new world. Other Christians think it will come about through the collaborative, cooperative work of human beings as they work with each other (and with the Spirit) to bring it about. I align with this latter group, if indeed, the kingdom of God will ever be realized fully in this world. Sometimes I wonder.
In terms of our spiritual and moral evolution as a species we can’t be much past adolescence can we? Our intellectual and technological evolution seems to be outpacing our spiritual and moral evolution. We have made great strides in extending life expectancy and fighting diseases that once cut life off prematurely. And yet, millions of people still are not able to access these resources. We have amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the planet several times over. And we all know how systems large and small – governments, corporations, all kinds of political, economic, social, and religious systems, even local organizations, can become pervaded by injustice and evil.
How do we keep hope alive? How do we sustain hope that the world can be different, that we can be different? That our lives have meaning and purpose? That we can contribute to a more just, loving, peace-seeking society?
I do not have answers, but I can offer a few suggestions based on my own faith journey. One way I nurture hope is through the discipline of quiet. I set aside time to simply be with God and listen to God. I believe prayer is much more about listening for the Divine whisper than asking God for stuff - even good stuff. It’s primarily about being tuned in to the passion for love and goodness that is the essence of the Divine.
When I am in solitude my intent is to simply be with God, to give God my time. If nothing happens, if I fall asleep, if my mind wanders, I don’t beat myself up. Sometimes I hear God speak in those wanderings. Many times I can’t say anything happens at all. But somehow these times of solitude help keep my life oriented around a greater God and a greater good (what Jesus called the kingdom of God). Life changes from good to bad, and from bad to good all the time. The important thing is to have a Center (a greater Some One and a greater cause) that helps us to keep it all in perspective.
Another way to cultivate hope is by refusing to give up on the relationships and practices that can sustain us through difficult times – even in those times where we may be feeling the weight of the world. This can be as simple as maintaining connection with a faith community.
Spiritual writer Joan Chittister tells about the last year of the great polio epidemic in the U.S. when she, as a young person, was quarantined with sixteen other people. One woman cried incessantly day and night. She felt lost, scared, angry, and very alone. One day, a man in a wheelchair came rolling in her room inviting her to join their wheelchair races. She said,
“Those wheelchair races saved me. I never won any of them but my arms got stronger by the week and I learned to handle the chair. And, most of all, I laughed a lot and made new friends and had a great sense of the possible that carried me for years.” The Sacred In-Between, p. 71
Being faithful to the practice of community may be very difficult when we feel so bad, and yet this is one of the practices that can help keep hope alive.
One final suggestion: Do for others. We can give some of our stuff away. We can try to encourage someone every day. We can be kind. We can take the time to listen to someone’s story and empathize with their feelings. We can work to correct some injustice. In these ways, we can tangibly and personally participate in a story much larger than our little stories, and break the hold egoism often has over us. We are, of course, limited in time and resources, but each of us can do something for the good of others.
It is important to remind ourselves daily that our attitudes and actions have consequences. We can pollute the world with negativity or we can strive to make things better. After Jesus instructed a religious leader to love his neighbor as himself (which he illustrated with the parable of the Good Samaritan who went out of his way to help an enemy) Jesus said, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). This is how we say “yes” to life.
Our attitudes and actions can foster despair, or they can nurture hope. By committing ourselves to do good to others, to sow seeds of compassion and mercy, to work for fairness and the common good, especially for the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable, we are choosing life over death and we are choosing to keep hope alive.
Sometimes I wonder how it works: If people first give up and then a cloud of hopelessness descends, or if people first lose hope and then give up. Maybe it works both ways. What I do know is that if we want to be hopeful, then we need to be faithful. We can’t give up. We must keep listening for the still, small Voice. We must keep engaging in the practices and relationships that can sustain our lives. And we must break the power of the ego and the temptation toward negativity by doing for others, giving to others, and investing in a greater cause than our own self-interest.