The new church year begins this week.
Not with a festival, cards, a big party or a special dinner. There’s not much decoration that’s for new year’s day, maybe even just a single candle on a wreath. A wreath with four other candles on it, and this first one isn’t even the most important. It’s the first one on a journey somewhere else. Lighting one each week, by the time we get to the candle that matters most, this first one might be just a stub. And yet, a blazing light, a star even, metaphorically speaking, because that candle represents hope.
Christmas is coming and the church year begins with Advent, a time of anticipation and preparation for Christmas. Four weeks with the themes hope, peace, joy and love.
I know what you’re thinking. You started preparing for Christmas with some shopping back on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. And there’s so many business Christmas parties, you might have had yours back in November. You might even have put your tree and decorations up a respectful amount of time after November 11 and started your Christmas baking. Maybe you’re holding off on the Christmas cards until the last moment.
Yes, that’s all preparation, that’s all anticipating The Big Day. It is.
You might also be preparing yourself for a time of year that’s difficult. Grief and loss are so sharply felt in those moments that others find happy, when we can’t find the sense of celebration that’s happening all around us. That, too, is anticipation and requires some preparation.
That’s right where the church year begins, with anticipation and preparation for what’s ahead. I think that’s why the first candle is hope. Whether you’re wrapped up in all that busy-ness or holding on to grief in the midst of all the chaos, hope reminds us, deep in our hearts, that there is something special ahead: calm at the end of the busy-ness, a light lifting of the grief, new life, the possibility and potential of a new beginning.
That’s the thing about hope. It’s not about when things – busy or hard or both – will be over, it’s about what will begin. Hope carries us through to that new beginning. Whenever, however, whatever it may be. Hope isn’t quantified by time or expectation. Hope is about the arrival of peace, inner joy and love and the wholeness that comes with them.
The prophet Jeremiah knew about hope. He lived in very dark times for the people of Israel. Conquered, occupied and exiled, the Temple destroyed, the people had good reason to feel hopeless. But Jeremiah told them that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made” (Jer. 33:14). That promise is about new life coming from the line of David, of the restoration of justice, righteousness and safety for the people. That hope references a promise made in the past, acknowledges the present struggle and offers hope that it will be fulfilled. Those days are coming, it’s certain.
In our own time, we might well feel like we need to hear those words, too. And in Jesus, Christians see the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Jesus is born from the line of David, so he is the new branch Jeremiah refers to. But I wonder if we aren’t limiting Jeremiah’s brave and inspiring words of hope with that “fulfillment.”
Each year, we commemorate the coming of Jesus in the distant past, while affirming his presence in our lives today and calling people to live into the way of Jesus in the days ahead. That’s hope.
Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled with every act of kindness we share, every time we stand up for what’s right, every time we choose to love, care and support our neighbour, every moment of forgiveness, every selfless act of service. To me that’s being Jesus, over and over again. To me, that’s the new life, the affirmation of that hope, the sharing of that hope, reminding others that it’s present in them, too. It’s present in all of us. We’re all a part of fulfilling that hope.