Reflections on the Advent Candle: Hope
The final month of 2020 has appeared, and not a moment too soon. In March, many people around the world were mourning the loss of the great plans they had made for this year. As we enter December, we begin to look back at the devastation: hundreds of thousands of deaths due to the COVID-19 virus with the pandemic projected to continue into late 2021. Religious institutions of all types and denominations are facing catastrophic collapse due to COVID-19 and the accompanying loss of attendance and revenue. 11 of 26 named hurricanes have struck the Gulf Coast of the United States causing over $28 billion dollars in damage. Up to 26 million people have participated in racial protests in 2020, the largest amount in the history of the United States. Unemployment hit 15% in April in the United States—today that number is 7.9%. According to the Pew Research Center, “Unemployment rose higher in three months of COVID-19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession.” US economists have charted a 4% fall in the Gross Domestic Product—the greatest fall since 2009. The BBC news service has projected an even more costly drop:
The US economy has now been hit by the biggest economic contraction ever recorded and the highest unemployment rate in more than 80 years… During his first three years in office, President Trump oversaw an annual average growth of 2.5%. The last three years of the Obama administration saw a similar level of growth (2.3%) along with a significantly higher figure (5.5%) in mid-2014.
But the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year has triggered the sharpest contraction since records began. In the second quarter of 2020 – accounting for April, May and June—the economy contracted by over 30%. That’s more than three times greater than the 10% fall in 1958.
Finally, high school, college, and professional sports are being played with limited or no spectators in the stands, thus losing billions of dollars of their usual revenue. Restaurants, and even churches, are struggling to make ends meet and to stay open. I can’t think of a better time for “hope” to show up in the lives of ordinary people. In 21st century America, as the light gets dimmer and dimmer, there is hope; and it has always been there for us.
Searching for Hope
In the first century BCE, the Mediterranean world, and more particularly Samaria and Judaea, was ruled by the iron hand of the Roman Empire. After millennia of wars involving the Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and other smaller nations—Canaanites, Moabites, etc.—Israel, or what was left of Israel, Judaea—was suffering greatly at the hands of this brutal, inconsiderate Rome. Just a few hundred years earlier the Jews had risen and thrown off the shackles of the Seleucid Empire (Greek), only to be pushed back down by the Romans. The Jews fled across the Mediterranean and those that remained experienced a senseless existence.
This persecution encouraged the Jewish people to search the writings of the ancient prophets for answers. In this process, they scoured these writings for predictions that the “messiah” would come and deliver them from their oppressors once and for all. Israel would then be “resurrected” to a place of peace and prosperity. The last third of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah, Zechariah, Malachi, and other books were searched for God’s promise of redemption. This hopeful view of a future messianic liberator not only inspired the people to look towards God, but also to create a number of writings that fed the hopeful imagination of the people—the books of the Maccabees, the book of Judith, Tobit, and others. Filled with heroes and heroines fighting against oppression and towards ultimate victory, these writings became the truth upon which the Jews based their hopes.
Our Hope: The Miracle of God with Us
As the Jewish people endured an increasingly repressive Roman occupation, and the destruction of their culture seemed sure, the miracle occurred. A child was born in Bethlehem, fulfilling the predictions of Israel’s prophets in the Scriptures, with the real-time witness of the pagan Magi from Persia, the angelic chorus from God’s heaven, and the voices from creation, from the lowliest shepherds to the bright stars. Hope was now a reality.
In the midst of our contemporary struggles, the coming of the Messiah is our hope, too. As our collapsing culture breeds fear and failure, the star of Bethlehem shines brightly for all of us, revealing the truth of God’s love for the most damaged souls. We must allow the light of the Star, and the love of the Christ-child, to pour hope into our lives. We can face the problems in our world, because hope was born into us through the powerful love that is Jesus.