Reflection by Fr. Dave Warren, SFM, on Isaiah 40.1-5, 9-11, 2 Peter 3.8-15 and Mark 1.1-8
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. For some time now, the stores have been decorated for Christmas and they are advertising Christmas merchandise.
The stores know that we are always looking ahead to something. They know that our lives are oriented towards the future and they know how to capitalize on our orientation to the future. Even before Christmas Day, they offer us a Boxing Day Sale. The snow will still be on the ground when they begin to advertise spring merchandise. The leaves will barely appear on the trees when the stores will begin to advertise summer merchandise. At the beginning of August, the merchants will introduce back-to-school merchandise. Then it will be fall clothing. Then it’s back to Christmas.
We are always looking ahead to something. But are we looking ahead with hope?
Hope is not wishful thinking. Buying a lottery ticket is wishful thinking.
Hope is not wishful thinking. Nor is hope positive thinking. One of the best-selling books of all time is Norman Vincent Peal’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Since it was first published in 1952, The Power of Positive Thinking has sold five million copies. However, in 2009, Barbara Ehrenreich released a book entitled Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Ms. Ehrenreich maintains that positive thinking prevents Americans from acknowledging the possibility of negative outcomes. She attributes, for example, the financial crisis of 2008 – from which the world economy is still suffering the effects – to the “positive thinking” of the business community who never considered the possibility that people might default on their mortgages.
Hope is not positive thinking. Nor is hope optimism. Optimism is better for our emotional and physical health than pessimism is. It’s nice to be around optimists instead of pessimists. But what do optimists do when bad things happen – as inevitably they do now and then?
Optimism is unable to deal with the real world of disappointment. Hope, on the other hand, has experienced disappointment and is ready to meet it again.
Hope is not optimism. Both optimism and hope look to the future. But optimism is anchored in the future which we will create; hope is anchored in the future which God will create. Hope is anchored in the power of God and not our own.
Ever since the eighteenth century, the Western world has been suffering from the illusion of continuous progress. Science and technology have enabled humanity to do amazing things. But the deeper problems of humanity resist scientific solutions.
The credo of the Enlightenment was “Knowledge is power.” But the power of knowledge is overrated. Science and technology are unable to solve the persistent problems of the world – problems like inequality, war, inter-racial and interreligious conflict, and the destruction of the environment. These issues and others are beyond our power to resolve.
Optimism is anchored in the future which we will create. Hope is anchored in the future which God will create. Hope is based on God’s promise that life and goodness will ultimately triumph over death and evil, and that truth and love will ultimately win. But hope is not blind. Hope is not blind to the evil in the world. Hope is not blind to the harsh realities of the world.
The prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading is not blind to the harsh realities of his time. The reality is that the Israelites have been living in exile in Babylon for many years. They are losing hope that they will ever see Jerusalem again. Isaiah is not blind to the harsh reality of exile, but he refuses to be bound by the present. He proclaims that God’s people have a future – a future which God will create. Isaiah proclaims that God will bring His people home.
Like Isaiah, John the Baptist proclaims that God’s people have a future which God Himself will create. He announces the coming of One who will separate the good from the evil once and for all and who will create a new humanity.
And so where is this new humanity? It’s us! The Christian community is far from perfect. We stand in need of continuous conversion to Jesus. But Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is among us (Luke 17.21). It’s among us who strive to live our lives according to the teaching of Jesus. Our acts of mercy and kindness, our commitment to others, our efforts to make this world a better place are all signs of the new humanity which God is creating.
The late Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must be the change that you want to see in the world.” We are the change that God wants to see in the world.
Hope is anchored in the future. But it lives in the present.