Last week a man was given his life back. He has been in prison for 20 years for crimes he did not commit. It is said that he will get compensation, although it is hard to see what will compensate for the loss of 20 years of a person’s life and with it, presumably, friends, family, career and reputation.
What do people who are wrongfully imprisoned dream of during their years of mental, physical and emotional deprivation? It must take a while to even get to the stage of dreaming.
Perhaps you give up in the end and simply try to survive on what little you have in the way of personal resources – the resources which enable you to believe in yourself and in the possibility that justice will be done. Perhaps you dare not hope, because hope embodies a kind of certainty. It is about looking forward to something that you are certain is going to happen, in the way only children know how to do. Years of captivity can grind away such innocence.
If we retain enough of our childhood innocence we will not have quite forgotten how to hope. There is an excitement about hope which moves us forward and teaches us to see the goodness in others. Hope, and the certainty it promises, derives from the love which is its source. Looking forward to something good is a quite different feeling to what is experienced when, sadly, we relish the moment in the future when someone will get their just deserts, or when we will be finally vindicated at someone else’s expense. These things may well happen, but the moment, when it comes, will feel hollow.
The difficulty about hope is that the things we look forward to with eagerness, joy and even a degree of trepidation, do not always happen, or work out in the way we had thought they would. So there is always the risk of pain. Daring to hope is also being willing to accept pain and even disappointment. Dealing with disappointment is the risk we take when we dare to hope in the fullest sense of the word.
For many children Advent is a season of eager expectation, having mainly to do with looking forward to receiving Christmas presents. For others it is not. The presents are spoiled by circumstances; fighting parents, the death of someone they love, the looming cloud of debt which is part of the reason that their parents are fighting. The looking forward ends in anxiety and sometimes fear.
Advent is the season for a ‘looking forward’ which never disappoints. If we engage with it as the beginning of God’s fulfilled promise, we will not be left stranded on the rock of disappointment, or returned to ourselves as we were before we began to look forward to the fulfillment of the promise.
The best of our usual expectations often return us to ourselves, not because we are selfish or unimaginative, but because so often there is nothing much beyond whatever it is we are looking forward to. Hope embodies the promise that there is something greater and better than what we know of ourselves, something that can make a positive difference to the lives of others. Hope embodies the idea that we are valued and capable of immense goodness.
The Christian story is good news because it allows for the possibility that our expectations can be transfigured, including the often limited expectations we have of ourselves. So the good news of the coming of God’s Christ obliges us to live in such a way as to be bearers of hope. As hope-bearers we give others permission to act and think from the goodness within them, even if that goodness is not at all apparent. The hope which is given to us in the season of Advent requires that we shine a light into their darkness and into the darkness which surrounds us, so that goodness, or ‘righteousness’ may be released into it.
This is one aspect of the activity of prayer – holding the world and our neighbour in their darkness until they emerge into the light. Anyone who has traveled by air will know the feeling of emerging into bright sunlight when the plane, as it takes off, finally penetrates the grey of the place they left behind.