The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
In 79 AD, Herculaneum, near Pompeii in southern Italy, was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was not a wealthy town.
Excavations at the site have uncovered blocks of tenements in which the poor lived. The ruins of Herculaneum speak about the lives of ordinary people.
In one house recently uncovered, in a small room on the second floor of a tenement, there was found imbedded into a stucco wall panel, a small cross. It's an important find because it's among the earliest evidence of the Christian religion in the Roman Empire.
The archaeologist sees this cross and knows that a Christian lived here, a Christian who was very poor, a Christian who was almost isolated from a larger pagan community. Thus this cross is of some interest. The believer sees this cross and begins to understand a great deal about this room and its occupant(s).
There was hope in this tiny room, hope in the midst of what must have been a very meagre existence. There was freedom from the Fates that ruled the lives of so many people in ancient days. There was light that comes from the knowledge that one is loved. For in this room lived a Christian, one who believed in Jesus, one who believed that the ultimate meaning of the universe is life-nourishing love. Could anything destroy this hope?
Well we all know that hope is a good thing, even an essential thing: there's no life without hope, or so the saying goes. In many ways hope could well be the most important feeling this early Christian experienced in faith. In fact hope is fundamental to us all, intrinsic to faith, a key to good health, and a good pointer to meaningful existence.
Yet most people tend to think of hope as something you either have or you haven't, something you're born with, or born into, through good parenting or advantageous circumstances. But hope is one of the great characteristics of a living faith. It's active and what's more, it can be cultivated and nourished. On the whole, hopeful people tend to be more resilient, more trusting, more open, and more motivated than those less hopeful, and consequently they're perhaps more likely to recognise the presence of God - and so ultimately receive more from the world.
The living Church today (perhaps more than ever before) demands initiative, resourcefulness, determination and the ability to react to constant changes in society. Here we find hope and optimism to be so important, not least in building resilience and giving us the ability to bounce back from adversity and bounce forward from failure. This great motivator has the capacity to promote growth in us, and stimulates us both the mind and heart.
Fear on the other hand, more often than not, restricts it. When we're hopeful, both body and soul tend to be relaxed. We feel generous and open, not only with others, but also with ourselves and our worlds expand with ideas and momentum. We feel motivated. Christians have always been characteristically people of hope, not just being hopeful for this or that to get something better in the immediate future, but hopeful for the ultimate future that God will give to his whole creation. Here there are radical differences between Christian Hope and ordinary human hopes.
In the first place, human hopes tend to be small, with short-range goals, contingent upon unpredictable things and events. In contrast, faithful hope, is divine hope, grounded in God and in His unchangeable purpose for the individual and for all humankind.
Secondly, humanistic hopes for human progress focus on our ability to create a better future. In contrast, Christian hope is Advent-centered and generates unshakable confidence. Such confidence rests on the belief that true and ultimate human progress will be realised not from within but from without human history, with the Coming of the Lord to this world to restore life, peace, order, and justice to this earth
Thirdly, ordinary secular hopes (more often than not) arise out of uncertainty and necessity and thus expect a radically different future. Christian Hope, in contrast, arises out of certainty and possession and is therefore characterized by a sense of continuity between the present and the future. The believer already experiences in the present a foretaste of the future age to come.
Fourthly, ordinary human hopes are partial and changeable as each tomorrow becomes today. Christian Hope, in contrast, is comprehensive, unchangeable hope, because it is grounded in God and in His eternal purpose for us.
The spirituality of Advent calls us to live our Christian journey in hopeful expectation of the second coming of Christ. This end time is the period in history when the work of Christ will be consummated, when the powers of evil will be put away forever, when the earth will be restored to the golden age described by Isaiah and St. John (Isaiah 65; Revelation 20-22).
This season of Advent calls us to embrace again such a change of attitude. Now is the time for hope and for us to raise our expectations above the disappointments and anxieties of a sinful world. Just as that early Christian in Herculaneum held fast to his Christian hope in almost total isolation from other members of the church, so God longs to transform isolation into community, selfishness into generosity, violence into peace, sin into virtue. God longs for this to be fulfilled. In this sense, Advent calls us to changed attitudes of hope. Ultimately the hope to which we're all called rests not only in what God can bring about, but also what we can bring about in ourselves.