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The discipline of hope

This Advent may be more poignant than in previous years.

With the world still essentially at pause because of the pandemic, the relief in the form of a vaccine remains a distant hope, even with a few trials proving tentatively successful.

There were several virtues that had to be learnt during the course of 2020, perhaps ongoing for the majority—patience, generosity, kindness, selflessness and discipline.

For some, however, it would have been a tumultuous year as the isolation and work-from-home (or as a woman in an online article rephrased: “living at work”) would have resulted in issues with mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Relationships may have encountered greater difficulty or ended; the elderly may have felt lonely; and many families would have the added profound stress of no income coinciding with the upcoming Christmas festivities and the expectations therein.

Christmas itself, will not be the same as the years prior, with discretion urged in family gatherings to staunch the number of COVID-19 cases.

Advent, however, in the midst of this lived reality, is the season of joyful waiting in hope for the Second Coming not unlike the Upper Room experience of Lent.

This time, the waiting is without the trepidation of the apostles but instead with certainty of Christ’s coming. For both experiences, the longing for relief in the waiting is palpable.

It is a fertile time now to ponder even more deeply the four themes of Advent as we light each candle on our Advent wreath: hope, peace, love and joy, to draw these into the souls thirsting for each, and who in the depths of their own despair may not feel able to pray.

It is difficult in the midst of the perceived abyss of personal crisis, to know how to clamber out, even while longing to do so.

On hope, Pope Francis speaks of its immense power in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti: “…for hope ‘speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of our circumstances and historical conditioning. Hope speaks to us of a thirst, an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfillment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fill our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness and beauty, justice and love….” (55).

Pope Benedict XVI’s writes in On Christian Hope that “the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” (1).

Hope is in itself a discipline, “It’s a choice; a self-imposed discipline to trust in God while judging ourselves and the world with unblinkered, unsentimental clarity. In effect, it’s a form of self-mastery inspired and reinforced by God’s grace. ‘The highest form of hope,’ Georges Bernanos said, ‘is despair, overcome’.” (‘On Christian Hope and Advent’, Catholic News Agency). Sometimes, people need a boost along the way to overcoming despair.

The Responsorial Psalm this Sunday is as such a plea for hope in God’s showing His face to His people who are yearning for His salvation: “God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.”

Can we pray this as much for others, as we do for ourselves?