Thursday, January 1, 2009


Every new year, it seems, begins with memories and hope. We think back over the year ending, and we face the new year with hope.

For me, the memories this year are mainly of New Years Eves past, rather than of 2008, a year I’d rather forget. Instead, I looked around the little group of friends with whom we celebrated, and wondered how many other years we have celebrated with these same people, raising our glasses in a toast, singing a verse of “Auld Lange Syne,” sometimes acting silly and sometimes, like this year, thinking it’s silly to be so silly and we’d rather not, cutting the Vasilopita (St. Basil’s Bread), seeing whose piece contains the lucky coin – and finding it a wee bit harder, each year, to summon the will to stay up late enough to see the new year in? We used to go to big parties together; now we meet in each other’s homes. How many of our birthdays have we celebrated in between those Auld Lange Synes we’ve shared, how many engagement parties and weddings and baptisms and funerals and name days have we lived through together? It seems to me that New Years Eves are like mileposts along a country lane that somewhere en route gradually turned into a super highway.

But the main thing that struck me this year was that everybody in the whole world, or virtually everybody, celebrates the New Year with hope.

It isn’t necessarily hope in the profound, existential sense, but we all hope more trivial things. We know we will die, but we hope not this year. We hope for happiness and say, “Happy New Year!” We hope for success in our careers, for prosperity, for peace, for pleasant things to happen and not sorrowful ones. We hope for fun.

Some of us will die in 2009, others will face assorted tragedies, heartbreaks, losses, and yet we hope. I look back at group photos of our family and think such things as, “There are Barbara and Daniel before they had children, before they ever knew Madison and Elizabeth would exist. There are Katherine and Mark with a year-old Kelly, all innocently unaware that a couple of short years later, they would be surprised by twin boys. There’s Wendy, never imagining what would befall her… there’s Grace, oh, but she probably already knew she and Aaron were going to be married…” We do not know the future, but somehow, without any foundation for it, we nevertheless all hope. And this seems appropriate and right. Why is that? Is it because the human spirit just plain needs hope? Or is it perhaps because there is really no feasible alternative?

As for hope in the more profound, existential sense, I don’t know where that comes from, either, except from Christ. I don’t know how or in what non-believers find any ultimate hope. Equally, I don’t know how most believers do! That’s because I’ve noticed, as I go along, that every god except the True God is some form of a tyrant. There is a crocodile god somewhere who requires initiates into his cult to have their backs horribly cut up, so that when they heal, they look forever after like the crocodile’s own back. There are volcano gods, such as Madame Pele in Hawai’i, who will extinguish you in fire and smoke if you offend her. There are several alleged Christian gods, imposters, like the one who demands absolute obedience or he consigns you to hell forever. Or the one who, like the volcano gods, demands the sacrifice of a virgin to appease his wrath, except now a merely human virgin is not enough; only a theandric virgin will do (one who is both god and man). The idea that this god himself provides the virgin, in fact condescends to come and himself be that virgin – this is supposed to make it acceptable that he is so monstrous as to demand all these tortures and horrors in the first place to satiate his wrath or satisfy his alleged justice. (That concept of justice, of course, has nothing to do with the true Christian God, or with true justice, either.) From what do believers in these tryant-gods derive any ultimate hope?

So far as I know, the True and living God, and He alone, can give us this kind of hope – and so much more! Because in Him, what is it you ever yearned for that you do not already have? Did you hope for resurrection and life? You have already met Life and the Source of all Life: “I am the resurrection and the life.” You already participate in His immortality. Did you hope for love? You have met Love, face to face, and He is more wonderful than you could ever have hoped. You have met True Love and the very Source of True Love. Did you hope for forgiveness and the chance to start over again with a clean slate? Done! Did you desperately hope you could someday change from who you are? You already experience, even if only sometimes and partially, the beginnings of a whole, radical inner make-over. Did you hope for true and indestructible joy? You have found Him, found both Joy and the Source of all Joy. All the things your soul could have hoped for, you already have, albeit in infant form, here and now. This is what St. Paul means when he says, “Faith is the being of things hoped for, and the obviousness of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Like a fruit tree bearing blossoms in Spring, we already carry these hoped-for things around within us, and that is what gives us the confident hope that one day, the blossoms will give way to the mature fruit. That is what allows us to believe that ultimately, the new kind of Life we have been given will be prove endless, the Love we now struggle to live will find no more obstacles, the Newness already gestating in us will culminate in radiant, god-like beauty.

St. Paul’s own analogy in verses such as 2 Corinthians 1:22, and 5:5, is that the Holy Spirit in our hearts is like a deposit, a down payment, or what our grandparents called earnest money. “You were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise,” says St. Paul, “which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14)

Now hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)