As Advent approaches, we begin to contemplate the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. Those who practice the tradition of Advent often light candles representing these Christian themes throughout the Advent season, and in the glow of these candles, they enjoy a time of quiet prayer and contemplation. Advent is our opportunity to reflect on ourselves and prepare hearts for the arrival of the holy babe in the manager. It is, in a sense, the “Lent of Christmas.”
The first week of advent focuses on “hope.” Today, I think back to my first year of college, so many years ago. I was quietly eating meal at the dining facilities when the young man across form me initiated a philosophical discussion. It began harmlessly enough, but pretty soon he was telling me that my religion was but "a shield" with which I "deluded myself" because I could not "deal with reality." If I hoped there was a God, it was only because I could not face the suffering in this world.
Is hope merely a more gentle name for fear? Do we hope for Christ to come again, do we hope to enter another and greater life, simply because that hope enables us to deny harsh reality? To say yes to this question would be to assume that hope comes easily. It doesn't. I have often suppressed hope so that I might avoid the bitter fruit of disappointment. It has never been easy to hope for something--to set some high goal for myself only to fall short of it again and again. It is always so much easier, so much more tempting, to resign myself to pessimism. If you hope for nothing, and receive nothing, what do you suffer? But to hope, then to fail, and yet to hope again--that requires strength.
Why does the birth of Christ inspire us with an unremitting hope? Why do we believe that God came to earth incarnate, that He was crucified, resurrected, and will come again? We believe this not because it is easy, not because we are incapable of "dealing with reality," but because we recognize reality's very existence and, instead of choosing to ignore it, we have chosen to understand it. Hope is how we confront reality. We cannot view the suffering about us indifferently--nor can we invent excuses for the anguish caused by man's own iniquity. We must not surrender ourselves to despair. Instead, we must brave reality with the steadfast weapon God has granted us: hope.
For the second week of Advent, we focus on peace. Refrains of "peace one earth" and "good will towards men" always inundate my thoughts. The New Testament is replete with references to peace. Yet, and this is the funny thing, Christ Himself had very little consolation to offer in the way of peace—at least, in the way most people define peace today.
"Peace on earth." I have read those three words; I have heard them; I have sung them. Yet rarely do I hear mentioned the following words that come straight from the lips of Jesus Christ: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).
Does this mean that all the songs are wrong? That the sentiment, "peace on earth" is useless? Surely not. It merely means that our understanding of peace is insufficient. We think of peace as the absence of strife, but, as Christians, we can never be fully free from strife—we must constantly struggle against the world. So long as we remain on a fallen earth, there can be no "peace." This worldly peace—this absence from strife—is not the kind that God offers us: "My peace I give unto you: [but] not as the world giveth, give I unto you" (John 14:27).
The peace that Jesus Christ gives us is not an earthly peace—it is not an end to war or an end to suffering. There will be wars and rumors of wars, and the poor we will have with us always. However, Christ offers us a much more profound peace, a peace that stems from the knowledge that Jesus Christ, through his birth, crucifixion, and resurrection, has triumphed over sin and death:
"These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
In the last week of advent, we turn our minds to love. I once participated in an intriguing conversation. The exchange was not about such mundane topics as the weather, cars, or fashion—instead, my friends were tackling the rather serious subject of love. Each was offering his or her own unique definition of the word, and although everyone's concepts varied, there seemed to be general agreement that a crucial part of love was "accepting people for who they are." At the time, I was a mere college student, and my idea of love had not fully matured. I simply nodded my head in agreement. I had heard the words acceptance and love linked so many times that I had ceased to think about the correlation at all. It made perfect sense. If you love someone, you accept him for who he is.
Yet that night, I read Corinthians Chapter 13, and I noticed that when Paul talked about love, he never said: "love accepteth all things." What he said was quite different: "love hopeth all things."
In our modern day society, love and acceptance have achieved the status of synonyms. In reality, however, they are virtual opposites. Love doesn't accept people as they are; love strives to make people better than they are. It is quite simple to accept people as they are; it is very difficult to love them enough to help them to change. It is hard to tell friends that you think they are doing something wrong. It is especially difficult for non-confrontational people who dread the thought of offending anyone. I can't even begin to count the number of witnessing opportunities I have overlooked simply because I was afraid that people might not like me as much if I brought up the subject of Christ. If I really loved them, however, I would have cared more about the hope I could share with them than what they thought of me.
Christ told us to love our enemies. That's a command that is very hard for many people, including me. The reason it is so hard, I think, is because we continue to confuse love with acceptance. We think loving our enemy means accepting her for who she is. Yet it means just the opposite. “Love hopeth all things”—love hopes, indeed strives, to bring out the best in our enemies. Love seeks to overcome evil with good. Love does not mean accepting someone's choices and actions, and it certainly doesn't mean attempting to fabricate some unsustainable feeling of affection—it means wishing someone to be the best he can be and helping him to become so.