A Gift Amid Suffering

By Michael Gerson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 25/12/07):

For some, hope — seeing present challenges in a positive light, living in the expectancy that the future will turn out well — seems to come easily. This trait can be as relentless and annoying as Mary Poppins — and as inspiring as a dying friend who cheerfully hopes for a few days without pain and gratefully accepts the last small pleasures of life.

For others, hope is more fragile. An uncertain medical diagnosis, betrayal by a close friend or a professional setback can loom so large that it blocks out the sun, leaving the rest of life in shadows.

Many religious traditions call hope a virtue. If so, it is the unfairest of virtues, because it seems more like a talent — an aptitude some of us lack. So much about hopefulness is related to temperament. And so much about temperament is related to genetics.

Studies show that identical twins — even those who grow up separately — tend to have similar levels of adult happiness. “Such findings,” according to a Newsweek article, “suggest that while we all experience ups and downs, our moods revolve around the emotional base lines or ‘set points’ we’re born with.”

And mood problems can be complicated not only by chemistry but also by astronomy. Reduced levels of light in the fall and winter decrease the production of serotonin — the chemical that manages and elevates our moods — sometimes reinforcing anxiety, social withdrawal and feelings of hopelessness. Perhaps this is one reason that pagan cultures celebrated the winter solstice — the turn toward more sunlight and serotonin — with feasting and gift-giving.

Christianity absorbed these pagan traditions but gave a radically different reason for hope — a hope that has nothing to do with our circumstances or the chemistry of our brains. The most extraordinary element of the Christmas story is the passivity of its participants. From shepherds to kings, they do little but loiter. They feel fear or expectancy, but these emotions matter not at all to the events they experience. They are like bystanders witnessing the invasion that will eventually liberate them.

This invasion comes with a dangerous humility — encouraging hope particularly for the poor and oppressed. Mary seems to realize the revolutionary inversion of values that has taken place, praising a God who scatters the proud, humbles the mighty, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty. The scales of the universe have been re-weighted in favor of the weak.

And the hope of Christmas came, not in spite of human suffering but in the midst of it — delivered in the obscurity of a stable, caked with the mud of daily life and fulfilled in the despair of Gethsemane. The strangest Christmas verse of all is the message from Simeon to Mary: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce.” But for some of us, it is comforting that the deepest kinds of hope have nothing to do with optimism.

For all these reasons, the hope of Christmas seems unlikely. From the beginning, many have found it so. But countless millions have also found in that story a comfort deeper than their darkest hours — a hope that survives even among the ruins.

During the latter, paranoid days of Adolf Hitler’s regime, the Nazis swept up a 37-year-old Jesuit priest named Alfred Delp. While in prison, facing hanging, he wrote a sermon on Advent — the Christian liturgical season that culminates in Christmas Day. And his words in that pitiless winter speak to us still:

“Oh, if it ever happens that we forget the message and the promises; if all we know is the four walls and the prison windows of our gray days; if we can no longer hear the gentle step of the announcing angels; if our soul no longer is at once shaken and exalted by their whispered word — then it will be all over with us. We are living wasted time and are dead before they do us any harm. . . . Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance. . . . But just beyond the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on us the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and singing boys, not yet discernible as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening. This is today. And tomorrow the angels will tell what has happened with loud rejoicing voices, and we shall know it and be glad, if we have believed and trusted in Advent.”