Hail the dawn of grace

“Therefore, faith, hope, and love abide,” St. Paul wrote to the nascent Church in Corinth — as well as to millions of couples who’d someday need a scripture reading for their wedding. “But the greatest of these,” he added, “is love.”

It’s hard to argue with that list or its prioritization. The primary instruction Jesus gave His disciples was to love — specifically, to love God with all our heart/soul/mind/strength, to love our neighbours as ourselves, and (much less conveniently) to love our enemies. Love is the greatest of these, the undisputed titleholder.

And faith is pretty great, too. Faith is that intangible source of spiritual fuel that sustains people like me who believe in God but who can’t provide an especially rational explanation for that. Faith is more than optimism or positive thinking — it’s a certainty we don’t understand and a confidence we nonetheless gratefully embrace.

But hope? Come on. Hope is barely worth showing up for. We make fun of the “triumph of hope over experience,” because the entire history of our world is one long victory lap for the triumph of experience over hope. You can hope all you like; experience will crush you without even breaking stride.

Hope is what you’re reduced to when you have nothing else, not even faith, to keep you going. And it consistently lets you down, like a bad friend you keep trusting to your detriment. I have faith, but I don’t have much hope, and I’d prefer to have even less than I do, and you know why? Because hope is a pain in the ass.

But here’s my problem: Paul places hope in the inner circle of virtues. Not only that, he places it second — higher than faith, lower than love. That’s really inconvenient for me, because it forces me to re-evaluate my preferences against God’s priorities, and I know I’m not going to come out of that fight with my preferences intact.

Not for the first time, God is telling me that something is more important than I think it is. He wants me to take hope seriously and accept it intimately. My fatalism and cynicism are pushing back hard against that: What has hope ever done for me? What has it ever delivered, besides heartbreak?

It’s taken me a long time, and I’m not remotely all the way there, but I’m slowly finding a way to relate to hope. And the way I found it is through the season of Advent, which began yesterday. Specifically, I’ve found it through my favourite Catholic hymn, “O Come Divine Messiah.” Give a listen.

Are you familiar with it? Probably not if you’re not Catholic, and maybe not even if you are. But it is worth knowing. It is a superb, moving, extraordinary hymn. Musically, it’s an exception to the slow, solemn pacing of most Advent hymns, your “O Come O Come Emmanuels”— the tempo is upbeat, almost jaunty in some versions.

But it’s the lyrics that make the difference for me, because they are powerful and unrestrained. They’re a plea from a longing heart to be rescued from distress and saved from imprisonment — and to be rescued and saved now, dammit.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

Sweet Saviour, haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night, and show thy face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.

O Christ, whom nations sigh for,
Whom priest and prophet long foretold,
Come break the captive fetters;
Redeem the long-lost fold.

The exclamation point in the first line sets the tone of urgency and impatience — hurry up! Come, already! We’re here in the darkness, in chains, and we’ve waited so long that we’ve forgotten how long we’ve been here, forgotten everything but the pulsing, driving need to be free. And we are miserable — we are leaden with the sadness and grief weighing us down. We don’t need you soon. We need you now.

I have to tell you, the world weighs me down with sadness and grief, every day. Hearts are broken, people are shattered, lives are emptied. Evil seems to have the run of the place. I really would give up, were despair an option for me.

But as a Christian, it’s not an option. Despair is the rejection of hope, and through Paul, God is telling us that hope is the second-most important thing we can have. Reject hope, and you reject God. So hope, come what may. Hope, whether you want to or not. Hope regardless.

That’s a hard message, for me anyway. But it’s not a pointless message or an empty command, with nothing behind it. And this is what Christmas, I think, is actually for — it’s a reminder, every year, of a promise kept, a renewal of hope.

Because, against all odds and expectations, the Messiah did come. Hope did triumph over experience, for one night at least, and it sang that triumph in the skies above the fields outside Bethlehem. Sadness fled, and for one day at least, joy was gifted to the world. The Messiah came, shining the light of His face upon the Earth, and the darkness didn’t just lift, it ran to escape Him. God’s promise to us, to me, is simple: I did it before. And I’ll do it again.

When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the one hope that didn’t disappoint. And we renew and affirm our intention to continue hoping— waiting expectantly for the day when that song of triumph will begin and will never end. Night will be dispelled, and it will stay dispelled. Sadness will run, and it will never stop running.

I’ll tell you this: I don’t hope for a lot. I deserve little and expect less, and that way my ego and expectations are both kept firmly in check. But I live my life waiting to hear that song, the one the shepherds heard a long time ago and no one has ever heard since. The triumph of hope, its indisputable and irreversible victory. That’s what keeps me going. And it’s why I gave this site its name.

The night of sadness will end. In its place will come a dawn full of grace — astonishing, extraordinary, and permanent. Wait for it.

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