By Keefe Piper
What is Christian hope? Of the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and love, hope is the least contemplated, and therefore the least understood, but by no means the least important. It is the master theme of the season of Advent, when each year the Church urges us to renew our hope. One of the great stories of hope we read in the days leading up to Christmas is that of the birth of John the Baptist.
Zachariah and Elizabeth are childless and now far past the age of giving birth. In all their years together they have carried two great hopes: to see the redemption of Israel and to raise a child. The Gospel tells us that they are righteous in the sight of God. Zachariah is a priest, Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron. More than just faithful, they are devout, irreproachable in the fulfillment of the Commandments. They suffer at the sight of the corruption of their people, the hypocrisy of their priests, and their servitude under the Roman Empire. They treasure the stories of the past glory of Israel under David and they know well the promises of redemption uttered by Isaiah—but when will this redemption come? And now, drawing near to the end of their lives, what has been the fruit of their faithfulness and constant prayer?
The second hope, even more personal and rawer—to have a son. They feel that they were made to love, to give life, to pour out all they have received into one of their own. In their early years of marriage, their hope was lively—they prayed aloud at night with happy confidence in their Maker. Years passed and their hope matured. They fasted and offered sacrifices, pilgrimages, and prayers. Finally, in these last years, when the childbearing age was well past, their hope was reduced to a whisper, too shameful to utter aloud between the two of them, too painful even to allow oneself to hear, just loud enough for God to detect.
Then one day Zachariah enters the sanctuary of God and the Angel Gabriel announces in thunderous voice the fulfillment of these whispered hopes: “Your prayers have been heard.” The youthful petitions, the sacrificial offerings, the silent weeping, the persistent whisper—not a word was missed by the God who listens in secret. “Your prayers have been heard!”
Who could believe that they would have a son, and that this very son would hearken the redemption of their beloved people? He would be John, the great prophet, who would turn the hearts of children to their parents, turn the rebellious to the wisdom of the just, and prepare a people receive their Lord.
Having arrived at the triumphant fulfillment, Zachariah doubts. “How can I be sure?” he asks. Why? Why doubt now after so many years of patient hoping? It is because it is not easy to hope. It implies waking up a desire that caused so much pain and risking an unbearable disappointment. It seems obvious that a life full of hope is more joyful than a life without it, but it is also a more costly. One who truly hopes has to pray for what he hopes for; sacrifice for this hope; speak, work and orient his whole life towards this hope.
If I have hope to renew a strained friendship, I have to dedicate time and love to that person. The moment I give up hope, I’m free to go read a book. If I have been battling two years to form a Christian community in a poor neighborhood and seen little fruit, the day I decide it is hopeless, I can close shop and take a well-earned vacation. But if there is hope…
Hope, it turns out, marks the upper-limits of our charity, our pursuit of holiness, and our apostolic zeal. No one will never lay down their life for a hopeless cause—and God doesn’t ask us to. Jesus sweat blood in prayer and offered his life on the cross for the enormous hope of saving the entire world.
In this Advent, God wants to give us the gift of Christian hope. For some it will mean replacing a stale pessimism with a fresh vision of reality. For some it will mean maturing a naïve optimism into a realistic Christian hope, one that recognizes the real brokenness of the world and the costly price at which Christ is saving it. For some receiving the gift of true Christian hope will mean surrendering their narrow expectations and giving the God who loves them free hand to realize his plan of salvation. For others, it will mean something like the opposite, that is, turning vague universal prayers into personal, concrete petitions—from an empty prayer for “world peace” to a desperate plea for reconciliation in a torn relationship.
If we open ourselves to his grace, the Holy Spirit will pour into our hearts a hope that is at once loftier and more realistic, more surrendered, and yet more personal, more patient and at the same time more expansive.
How can we carry in us a virtue marked by so many contrasts? The answer is that our hope is founded on in the God who became man, the infant King, who blessed the ones who cursed him and forgave the ones who killed him, the Author of Life who died for love and rose to conquer death, who sits at the right hand of his Father and repeats even our most hopeless prayers with filial confidence. He is the logic of our paradoxical hope and bids us hope much more.
Then let your hope grow in every direction! He gives us more than we can ask or imagine. Zachariah hoped for a son and received the great prophet. He hoped for the eventual salvation of his people and received the Savior in his lifetime. What is the hope you have forgotten? What is the prayer you’ve given up? God hasn’t missed a single word.
Keefe Piper met the St. John Society in 2014 while in the seminary and soon after joined them. After joining he spent one year serving in ministry at the Newman Center at OSU. He is now in Argentina missioning and studying towards the priesthood.