Anchored in Hope
Even the faithful see through a glass darkly, as Saint Paul says
What we Christians think of as spiritual realities have never been harder to grasp by ordinary people, in a world so richly endowed by thrilling material blessings yet also plagued by all kinds of miseries. The comforts and the dangers of our lives often almost overwhelm us.
A wise friend of mine, a rabbi, once described atheism as “spiritual tone-deafness.” It’s such a clever description of that state of mind that hears the noise but can make no sense of it. Even agnostics hear the noise, that is to say they recognize the existence of non-physical things, but they discern no pattern or good purpose behind it.
The poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1948), understandably embittered by war, wrote these words in a Christmas poem:
‘Peace upon earth!’ was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.
That is bitterness indeed. Yet that same poet felt a deep longing for the comfort of belief. As a child he had been touched by the quaint old folk myth that on Christmas Eve oxen in their stalls bend their knees in honor of Christ’s birth — and he wrote this, wishing that he could believe it too:
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel…’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
There’s tremendous pathos in that last line. Hardy seems always to have hovered on the brink of faith.
Another little poem of his, “The Darkling Thrush,” speaks of the merry chattering of a bird. There’s no apparent reason for its ecstatic warbling, but it makes lovely music and sings its heart out anyway. Could it be, Hardy wonders, that the thrush has an instinctive joyfulness, a kind of Hope that the poet himself cannot yet share? It was a grim, cold, bitter evening, yet the little bird sings for joy:
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew,
And I was unaware.
Few of us share the strong faith of the saints. We are anchored in Hope but we still see through a glass darkly, as Saint Paul describes it, and our faith wavers as much when we face hard times as when we are over-excited by the wonderful, captivating delights of this world. Keeping an even tenor is a tough challenge.
May we all come to know the joy that makes creation sing! I wish all readers an increase of faith, firm assurance, and unquenchable joy in the approaching festival of Christmas.
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