For me, it seems, this is the season of hopes that have died. Every few years, I seem to rack up yet another lost hope, all crushed into this one season–this season of thankfulness and preparation and celebration and Hope. Lingering right around Thanksgiving, the third anniversary of a hoped-for baby never known. Three years later, that same week, the official death of all the hopes wrapped up in a marriage. And then, just two weeks after that, the fourth anniversary today of the little girl lost, all hopes of healing and well-ness buried just two weeks before Christmas, just six weeks before her third birthday. Two children and a marriage lost, all crushed into this season.
How am I to reconcile the loss of so many hopes, so many griefs packed into a season that should be filled with songs of joyfulness and anticipated fulfillment? How am I to rejoice in the anticipation of a birth–The Birth–when my days and heart are filled with death after death of hope?
But that’s just it, isn’t it? Because in Advent we are anticipating the birth of Hope, yes. But it is only the thirty-three-year-later death of That Very Hope that makes it hopeful at all. We’ve heard it a million times, haven’t we: if not for Jesus’ death, we would have no hope. But in Advent, at Christmas, we don’t dwell on death! We talk about birth, about Mary carrying the Christ Child, about that night in the stable, about that star pointing to The Birth. And we stop there: the birth of Hope.
But the truth is–and we know it, all these years later, even if we wait until another season to dwell on it–that Jesus’ birth would be no good if not for his death. He is, in fact, the ultimate hope that died. Which makes me think, then, about how his disciples misunderstood his death. (Misunderstood death? Apply that phrase to any other death, and it sounds absurd. Something so clearly atrocious is hard to misunderstand.) But they saw the death of all their hope in Jesus’ death, and rightly so, I think. This was to be their Savior, and he had died. Nothing to misunderstand there.
Yet we know–because we know what comes next, don’t we?–that they did in fact misunderstand That Death. With the benefit of hindsight and years of church and sermons and experience, we know that the hope of That Birth was realized in That Death. And that was the only way it could be realized. So the disciples mourned and they grieved and they railed. And later–I’m sure it felt so very late–they learned that all along their Hope had to die.
And that’s it. That’s my aha! moment in the tears piling up around me in this season: hopes that have died. Perhaps it is the hopes that have died that will reveal my salvation after all. Perhaps it will take long, patient waiting to understand how, and perhaps in the moment all there is to do is mourn and grieve and rail. I don’t claim to know. But I know this: Hope does not always take the form we expect. The Conquering King was not supposed to come as a fragile baby who would be killed. The Savior was not supposed to be outlived by His expectant followers. The disciples were not supposed to bury the Hero that they had worshipped and adored. The Baby was not supposed to die.
So much for what we suppose. There on the cross, in one fell swoop, God put to death all our supposings about how things should go. This Advent, then, I am putting to death my presumptions about things that weren’t supposed to die, hopes and dreams wrapped up in the people I’ve lost. This Advent, I am choosing to hope that I will have patience enough–Lord, give me patience–to endure the long wait required to see the purpose in hopes that die. And I’m thankful to have someone to ask, to be able to mourn and grieve and rail to the Hope that died, the Hope that knew suffering, the Hope that put death down once and for all–the Hope that wasn’t dead but rose again and hears my pleas for patience: Lord, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.[…]
Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me;
make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation.
(Psalm 38: 15, 21-22)