A pale sky is tinting rose above the rooftops, behind the big old oak at the end of the block. Morning light is slowly finding its way into the chilled air of what will become Christmas Eve. In the eye of my memory I have just lighted the fourth of the five candles of my Advent wreath and am watching it flicker with its fellow sentinels of Christmas, each shorter than the one beside it. The shortest is the first candle, the hope candle, which has burned the longest.
It has been a decade or so since I last lit a candle on an Advent wreath in my home. I stopped the ritual for no reason but the perceived busyness of a modern life, and in this year of pandemic I have found myself in need of its grounding and yet struggling with what in it has relevance for this time, one of chaos, and of loss.
The stub of a hope candle, the flame muted behind the wax walls it has hollowed out around itself. Hope has been severely stressed this year by the demands of the unprecedented crises we face, and also by the expectation we place on it. We load onto hope our desires for a future we can imagine but cannot create. Hope is a product of our intellect; we build the objects of our hope in our minds and fix our attention on their emergence. We hope for a happy new year, that our children will be happy, our parents healthy. We hoped for a vaccine by September. Hope is based on desire, our desire for life to be as we would imagine it; but as all things born in desire, hope is destined to disappoint us. It disappoints because it narrows our options for joy to only those we can envision.
And so, I am giving up hope.
Which is not to say that I am giving up. At the close of Advent, I look forward with a renewed optimism grounded not in the head and a desired future, but in the heart and the possibilities of the present. Rather than hope, I am placing my stock in faith. I believe that this world is a good world, and that if I open myself to what it offers, hardships and all, it will reveal its goodness. Hope is passive; we wait for our conception of “good” to arrive. Faith is active. In faith we are called to look each day for beauty and joy and love in the cracks of life. Faith allows me to act with the certainty that all will be well, even if I don’t know, now, what “well” looks like.
Like hope, we must place our faith in something. We place our faith in Yahweh or Shiva or Jesus, Mohammed or the Buddha, the Tao. My faith focuses on transcendent love – call it God or the Holy Spirit or Buddha-nature – that lives in the hearts of all people, binding us together as one, for each other. I believe in the virtue and compassion we share.
The high clouds of the dawn morning are glowing pink now, the color of the third Advent candle, the candle of joy. It will be a good day.
In the Advent night candles flicker without hope, burning on with faith