I look from afar
And lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth.
Go ye out to meet him and say:
Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?
High and low, rich and poor, one with another,
Go ye out to meet him and say:
Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.
Tell us, art thou he that should
Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come…
These words from a Matin Responsory, as sung by choirs to deeply memorable music by Palestrina (1525–1594) often open the season of Advent for many around the world. They lead very fittingly into the majestic hymn by St Ambrose as translated by J M Neal:
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth, and manifest thy virgin birth: let every age adoring fall; such birth befits the God of all.
This grand moment of liturgical and musical drama first opened ‘A Procession with Carols on Advent Sunday’ in 1934, when Dean Milner-White introduced this service at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. This was actually a development building on the success of the Service of Lessons and Carols for Christmas, sung on Christmas Eve, which he had introduced in 1918. In his preface to the service, Milner-White wrote: ‘In the old English liturgies, the Advent Offices made a preparation for the coming of our Lord to this earth’ that was both ‘vivid and eager’… ‘So an Advent Carol Service, …is not without suitability if it helps to express the desire of all nations and ages.’ He added that the purpose of the service is ‘not to celebrate Christmas, but to expect it’. This brings us immediately to that most Christian virtue, namely that of hope.
It is impossible to imagine a theme more appropriate to the world in its present state, than that of the season of Advent, with its twin message, offering hope on the one hand, and a call to preparation, repentance, and reflection on the other.
Hope and a corresponding sense of intense and eager anticipation of an ultimate remedy, adequate to all the woes of this world, thus come together with unique intensity in the opening season of the church’s year.
But hope is a rich concept with a very long history that goes back far before the time of Christ not only for the people of Israel but in the ancient Greek world too. The Greek word for hope is elpis (ἐλπίς, which was also personified as a divine figure often represented iconographically as a young woman holding a cornucopia). If we think about the Ancient Greek sources that use the concept, we find a degree of ambivalence about it. For example, hope was seen as exhibited in a bad way by those who have insufficient knowledge, or are merely indulging in wishful thinking (eg Solon), yet it could also be seen as worthy of praise in the face of despair (as used by Thucydides for example).
Perhaps nowhere is this twoedged aspect of hope in Greek thought more sharply presented than in the story of Pandora, which comes down to us from Hesiod’s Works and Days.1The name Πανδώρα, is in itself interesting deriving as it does from πᾶν, pān or “all” and δῶρον, dōron, or “gift”, thus meaning “the all-endowed”, “all-gifted” or “all-giving”). There, as every schoolboy would once have been able to tell you, Pandora opens her famous box or jar and releases all manner of evils into the world, but when all else has gone from it there was one thing left behind –and that was hope.
According to the myth, this all happened after mortal humans received the stolen gift of fire from Prometheus. An angry Zeus in response decided to give humanity a punishing gift to compensate for the boon they had been given. So he commanded Hephaestus (the God of artisans and craftsmen) to mold from earth the first woman, a ‘beautiful evil’ as she is rather disturbingly described whose descendants would then torment the human race. She was then given to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus (whose name meant ‘afterthought’ by the way).
As Hesiod relates the story, the Pandora myth is thus a kind of theodicy, addressing the question of why there is evil in the world, and as such it invites the drawing of parallels and contrasts with the figure of Eve in Genesis (as a kind of narrative about the entry of evils into human existence). But that detail of hope left behind is provocatively ambiguous in its import.
Did its lingering mean that hope was left enduring for all humanity, or was the implication instead that hope was being kept from us?
Was hope to the Greeks then, a comfort to us in misery and a stimulus to activity, or an idle hope for the self-indulgent, offering a mere distraction from the struggles of life that should be our sole concern?
These ambiguities so well illustrated in the Pandora myth are reflected throughout the history of later reflection on the concept of hope in Western thought. It is worth noting that the English word ‘hope’ does not exactly match in meaning the Greek word elpis (or indeed the Latin word, spes) as the semantic range of the Greek verb elpiso and the noun elpis embraces not only hope in the English sense but also ‘expect’ and “anticipate” while it can also even mean ‘fear’.
Nonetheless, many would now take hope to mean, in its ordinary secular use, ‘to desire with anticipation’, something it is thought possible to attain even if doing so will be difficult and it is again worth noting that the realistic possibility of attainment is part of what distinguishes hope from mere desire.
But all this is in fact quite different from what is meant by hope as a Christian theological concept. Christian hope means something much richer, because of the uniquely Christian understanding of its telos or goal, as something which ultimately lies in God. As such, to use the language of St Thomas Aquinas, hope along with the other two ‘infused virtues’ of faith and charity (love) are such, ‘because they have God for their object, both in so far as by them we are properly directed to Him, and because they are infused into our souls by God alone, as also, finally, because we come to know of them only by Divine revelation in the Sacred Scriptures’, and in the words of Augustine, ‘Only if one loves the future fulfillment of God’s will and thus hopes for it, can one arrive at the correct form of faith.’ (Enchiridion, II.7 on Faith hope and love, c. 470 A.D.).
Thus for the Christian, we are very much not talking about hoping as a mere wishing for something – in some vague spirit of optimism – as one might hope for good weather. A point for once badly missed by G.K. Chesterton, when he glibly reduced hope to the mere ‘power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate’. In fact, for the Christians, in the act of hoping, we are doing something more akin to placing reliance on each other, as people do who make mutual commitments for the sake of a common good or goal (telos again) that will be realized only if the parties keep their promises. A powerful illustration of this is lived out when a married couple can reasonably rely upon the promises they make to each other in their wedding as the basis for their hope for a happy marriage.
Christian hope rests quite distinctively upon a confidence that is in a deep sense made absolute by virtue of its object, which is to say God, and by virtue of our understanding of ourselves as children of God. This entails that we can count on God our Father’s grace and mercy, as much as we do upon his continuing will that we exist from one moment to another (which is what the doctrine of creation tells us). Thus are we grounded as we strive to abide in his love through the course of this life and ultimately to die “in Christ”, as we look always towards the resurrection of the dead and the eternal life in the kingdom of God that is to come –a reality made available to us through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Indeed, we have a straightforward statement by Jesus, in Mark 12.18-27 which anchors Christian hope very firmly in the reality of the resurrection of the body in the life to come: ‘as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living’.
All of this underlines that this unique and specifically Christian perspective has very deep historical roots going back to the Old Testament. This is a vast narrative covering centuries over which the people of Israel wrestle betwixt hope in, and alienation from, their ultimate vocation given to them by God – a story replete with illustrations of the important consequences and corollaries that the concept of hope as rooted in God brings with it.
We have been vividly reminded of this by the book of Jeremiah which is often read in the days leading up to Advent.
As a prophet, Jeremiah was faced with dire times and terrible realities of which he was called to warn his people. Amid all this woe it is clear too that he was himself discouraged, and yet ultimately, he continued to find and maintain a deep sense of hope. This makes his writings all the more relevant to us today – for they also serve to remind us, as much as they did the people of Israel whom he addressed, that our actions matter and can have eternal consequences.
Here we need to remember the context of Jeremiah, who has in later ages been all too often reduced to a mere prophet of doom which is a deeply inadequate view of him.
His framing of his own epoch derives from the understanding that the descendants of Abraham first formed a nation about 1300 years before the time of Christ, after their Exodus from Egypt led by Moses. It was soon after that Exodus, that Moses transmitted to the people, the Torah with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and then, after 40 years in the Sinai desert, Moses led them to the land of Israel.
The rule of the Israelites in that land opens with the conquests of Joshua (c. 1250 BC) with the following period from 1000-587 BC coming to be known later as the period of the kings – of whom the most noteworthy were King David (1010-970 BC), who established Jerusalem as his capital and his son Solomon (970-931 BC), who built the first temple in Jerusalem as prescribed in the Torah.
But, while King Solomon created a wealthy and powerful government, he did so at an unsustainable cost, using what we might now call the Greek or Italian economic model. This had the dire result that lands in the end had to be ceded to pay for the extravagance, and many of the people of Israel even ended up as forced laborers in Tyre to the north.
After Solomon died (c. 926 – 922 BC), the ten northern tribes refused to submit to his son, Rehoboam. Their successful revolt entailed that from that time forward there were two Hebrew kingdoms: one in the north comprising ten of the twelve tribes, called Israel, and one in the south made up of the other two tribes, called Judah. (An episode which perhaps casts a different historical light on the concept of a ‘Two State Solution’ to the modern Israel-Palestine problem.)
The Israelites formed their capital in the city of Samaria, and the Judaeans kept their capital in Jerusalem and the kingdoms remained separate states for over two hundred years. But it is from this point on that the history of both kingdoms comes down to us in the Bible as a litany of weak and disobedient kings.
All of which calls to mind that when the Israelites had first asked for a king, as recorded in the book of Judges, they were told that God alone was their true king. The prophet Samuel even warned them that the desire for a king was actually an act of disobedience by virtue of the implicit repudiation of God that was involved and that they would ultimately pay a terrible cost if they proceeded.
The history set out in the Book of Kings bears out that warning.
Located directly between the Mesopotamian kingdoms in the northeast and the powerful state of Egypt in the southwest, the two Hebrew kingdoms were inevitably of great interest to their warring neighbors – as indeed the lands of Israel Palestine remain to this day. So it was that first, the ten northern tribes found themselves dragged into captivity at the hands of the Assyrians.
And it was at this point that Jeremiah first heard God’s call to be a prophet, at the rather modest age of about 17.
He was to be the last prophet sent by God to preach and warn the southern kingdom, (made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) that, because of their unrepentant sin, their God had turned against them and was now prepared to let a pagan king remove them from the land.
Jeremiah, in sharing this prophecy, had to endure great inner turmoil over the fate of his people, yet he remained a model of dedicated commitment and preached this message for no less than 40 years, even though not once did he see any real success in changing the minds or softening the hearts of his stiff-necked people.
All this invites us to dwell upon what it was that sustained him for so long, through such dire times, and the answer can only be hope and his trust in the ultimate good purposes of God.
We need to remember here just how bleak the times he lived through were, as Nebuchadnezzar’s army eventually laid siege to Jerusalem, captured and burned it in August 587 and Judah was reduced to a Babylonian province. Zedekiah himself was forced to watch while his sons were executed before him after which, to ensure it was the last thing he would ever see, he was blinded. Thus was the Empire of the Babylonians revenged for the Judaean contumacy and the Babylonian captivity began.
At one point even Jeremiah seems to have come close to doubting God (Jeremiah 15:18), but then received the words “…this is what the Lord says: ‘If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman. Let this people turn to you’.
Thus, despite rejection and discouragement, he remained faithful to his calling. This experience anticipated that of St Paul centuries later, who noted that while God’s truth can sound like “foolishness” to those who are lost, to believers it comprises the very words of life (1 Corinthians 1:18) yet, nonetheless there will be times when people will not tolerate the truth (2 Timothy 4:3-4). What may seem foolishness in the eyes of non-believers does make sense to the believer – not as mere blind faith but on account of its explanatory adequacy to the human condition.
It is the possession through faith of a wider and overarching cosmic perspective that can help us – as it did Jeremiah – to make sense of the sometimes terrible circumstances we can find ourselves in, in this world. It helps because it gives a context to the reality of its imperfections in the face of which we may be tempted to ask how a benevolent God can let such things take their course.
To this, the answer – hard as it may be to live with – is that ‘It is difficult to see how love could ever grow to any extent in a paradise that excluded all suffering. For such love presupposes a life in which there are real difficulties to be faced and overcome,….setbacks to be endured, dangers to be met.’ This is part of what gives life and our choices meaning.
If we seek an image for all this in Jeremiah, and his long life of intense inner and outer struggle, one that captures something of its depth is surely that of Michelangelo in his portrait of him placed as the first of seven prophets on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
In that image, (often thought to be a self-portrait by the painter) Jeremiah is shown in old age with a deeply lined face. He also has his mouth covered and finger extended in a way that suggests the formal posture known as the signum harpocraticum, the ancient gesture of silence, which yet signified too the possession of deep esoteric knowledge.
If the image of Jeremiah presented there is one that induces ‘powerful sentiments of reverence and awe’, as one commentator has put it, this should also remind us too of the hope that ultimately sustained the great Prophet long before the great coming of the Messiah in Jesus Christ for which we are in Advent called to prepare ourselves each year anew.
In the words of Dean Milner-White’s Advent Sunday prayer:
Beloved in Christ, as we await the great festival of Christmas, let us prepare ourselves so that we may be shown its true meaning.
Let us hear, from Holy Scripture, how the prophets of Israel foretold that God would visit and redeem his waiting people.
Let us rejoice, that the good purpose of God is being mightily fulfilled. Let us celebrate the promise that our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, will bring all people and all things into the glory of God’s eternal kingdom.