As my niece, Nicole, went through middle school, it was a delight to see that “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1947) was on her reading list — as it had been for her mom and me. Even more delightful: realizing that my niece seemed to sense an affinity and kinship with this young Jewish girl; her family denied immigration to the United States, hiding in a “Secret Annex” in Amsterdam to avoid the Nazi genocide of World War II.
Just two weeks before German soldiers raided the Annex and hauled the family to the death camp, Bergen Belsen, Anne wrote:
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart. I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too; I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right” (July 15, 1944).
From this teenage Jewish girl, we learn the roots of human and Christian hope: to believe in the power of love, healing and peace and to believe in God, precisely when there’s no evidence to support that belief! What strength it takes to trust such an intuition deep within, to hang on … to endure, when all of that seems only like craziness!
Precisely, it is from this place of “powerlessness” that we begin to experience true hope in a power beyond ourselves. Who’s in control? Just ask a 12-step brother or sister! Deep within our souls — our sanctuary — this hope allows God’s sustaining and saving action to be experienced, even in the darkest, most overwhelming of situations, and even when confronted by death!
The only Christian hope is “hoping against hope.” Anything else falls short: denial, fairy tale or attempts to manage God into our “wish fulfillment.”
That’s why I love St. Paul’s insight: “Hope is not hope if its object is seen. How can one hope for what they already see? And hoping for what we do not see, means waiting for it, with patient endurance” (Rom 8:24,25).
Of course this is Jesus, crucified on Calvary. Jesus’ “last words” reveal it! With no reasonable, physical evidence to rely on, he trusts, looks forward, hopes — even in death.
“This day you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). “Into Your hands, I commend my spirit!” (Lk 23:46). Even in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, as Jesus quotes Psalm 22: “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me?” That Psalm ends: “And yet, my soul shall live for God!” (Ps 22:31).
In his most hopeless moment, Jesus teaches us real, gritty, genuine hope! The Master teaches us that, for disciples of Jesus, death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us!
Advent — all of the Christian life, really — is about hope: waiting for what we cannot yet see, prove or make happen by ourselves.
Advent 2020 throws a particular curve ball into all of that. The COVID-19 pandemic sure has had us waiting, more impatiently than joyfully … for a vaccine, for the lockdown to be done, for things to get back to “normal,” for our turn at testing positive or for “it” to be over.
Maybe those are the wrong things to be hoping for?
Maybe Christ has already come to us in slowdown: “safer at home,” simpler, smaller, more intimate weddings, funerals and holidays, and even via economic downturn in a culture of material gluttony and excess?
Maybe as the institutional church is constrained, Christ invites the rebuilding of the “domestic church,” and through this action, the re-founding of the whole church, which has been flagging?
The old “normal” wasn’t really working. For many, it was killing us, our spirits and bodies, our marriages and friendships, households, cities, neighborhoods. It was killing our hope.
Maybe Christ invites the “non-essentials,” which crowd him out and separate us from him, to die? Maybe the old “normal” has to die, so that we may rise to new life in the Lord?
Can we trust that? Could that be Advent hope in 2020?
A priest-friend, Fr. Scott Boeckman, told me in March: “This pandemic came bearing gifts.”
My Christian hope tells me that’s true! Hope prompts me to trust God — who sent Jesus into the hopelessness of the world long ago and brought him back from the despair of the grave — to continue to hope for what I cannot see … yet!
Jesus, on Calvary. Anne Frank at Bergen Belsen, 20 centuries later — they both died. But their hope still lives. Please God! For us as well!
Fr. Shillcox, a member of the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré (Norbertines), is pastor of St. Rose Parish in Clintonville and St. Mary Parish in Bear Creek.
ADVENT, WEEK 1: