What is your hope?
Fr Peter cswg
The fading colours of autumn presage the oncoming season from Advent to Epiphany. The celebration of the coming of Christ into our midst at Christmas brings with it the expectation of his coming in fullness ‘when every eye will see him, even those who pierced him’. Traditionally then for the Church, this season raises the question: ‘what is your hope?’ – a question that strikes our hearts more poignantly in the light of the past year, and notably the summer, in the tragic events the nation has experienced amongst its young people. For ‘what is your hope?’ is a question that death, and especially that of the young, poses acutely. Death removes at a stroke every human hope for life in this world.
The last enemy
Yet the Christ who came at the first Christmas was also surrounded by death. Historically this was so in the murder of ‘the innocents’ of Bethlehem. It is present also with the Church’s liturgical celebration in the days following Christmas, when we remember the death of the first Christian martyr as well as the Innocents. All of this keeps starkly before our eyes the prime purpose of Christ’s coming among us: he came in order to die. More exactly, he came to destroy death, man’s ‘enemy’-the ‘last’ one, as St Paul referred to it – by his death. We begin to see why a notable Orthodox author called this season the ‘Winter Pascha’ (Passover).
In the Christian understanding, ‘death’ is not the last thing we do in life – our last breath, as it were. It is with us all the time, we ‘live in darkness, and the shadow of death’, as the Benedictus canticle puts it. This ‘death’ was not of God’s making [Wisdom 1.13] but ours. Our ‘fall’ – that brought ‘death’ into our world – was to take life into ourselves and for ourselves, instead of receiving life for God and in God. ‘Death’ is existence outside that communion with our Creator for which we were all created.
Christ came to us in order to ‘own’ this death, even in its cruellest form, and overcome it by offering it to the Father. Through that offering, he restored all of humankind to true life, to that communion with the Father, which alone is real life. This is the content of Christian hope then: communion with the Father, restored by his Son when he trampled down our death by his death. We renew, and grow in, this communion each time we participate in Christ’s offering, when with Jesus we offer all of our life back to the Father, in prayer and praise and thanksgiving.
At the same time, we discover for ourselves that this is the only authentic life there is. Outside of it is only ‘death’. That is why, daily, we feed upon this life, as daily we are grafted into it. It is the life the Father wills for us, to replace the self-sufficient, individual, but mortal lives that we call our ‘life’. It is this integrity of life, which his life is, that then becomes our ‘hope’ for every circumstance of life. It is a hope of witness that we may bear silently, in the presence of the sacrifice of ‘the innocents’ of this world. It is not any the less hope for being silent, since it is intercession drawing others into the same unconquerable hope that is truly life.