The word for this first Sunday of Advent and of a new liturgical year is hope. We light the first Advent Candle to mark the beginning of our Christmas preparations and to remind ourselves that we are a people of hope.
It’s a word cheapened by everyday usage. We may hope that the Patriots will win their game today, or we hope that it doesn't rain on our (outdoor) wedding day. But hope is a bigger word in our vocabulary of faith than that.
“Faith, Hope, and Love,” at least according to St. Paul, seem to be the big three. While love may well be “the greatest of these,” I've always thought that the implication is that the three are somehow connected, and wondered if the journey doesn't begin with faith, which isn't bout saying a creed or about memorizing a catechism, but about trust. More specifically, faith is about well-placed (rather than misplaced) trust. And that faith leads us to hope, and hope points the way to love.
The only way any of us get through really difficult days is to know that even if it will be a long haul that a new day will eventually dawn. I think if we can ponder that reality we begin to get a grasp of what hope is really all about.
An image that grows out of the Old Testament and into the New is the image of a “stump of Jesse” that gives way to a “new branch of David.” Jesse was King David’s father. What this metaphor suggests is that even though it appears that the Davidic dynasty came to an end, that it was only a stump, yet from that stump new growth will appear. For us as Christians that is language we cannot help but to connect to Jesus, the Son of David, our hope and our salvation. And so we wait for, and prepare for, Messiah to come again; even as our Jewish neighbors wait for, and prepare for, Messiah to come.
For many years I fought a losing battle against sapling maple trees by trying each fall to cut them off at the trunk only to find them coming back in the spring again; a new shoot growing out of that old stump. This happens, I have been told, because the root system already there makes new life come about more quickly, even though at ground level it appears that life has been cut off.
Advent begins with talk about endings, about the end of the world we know. But don’t be deceived. The paradox is that we begin here because we know that God is doing a new thing: birthing a new creation. New heavens. New earth. A branch of David out of the old stump of Jesse.
Ponder for a moment what that means not only in the Bible, but for the spiritual life. Advent is such a time, a time to contemplate new beginnings, new possibilities. It is a season of hope.