Q: Dear Father John, Advent is usually a season of hope. But what about when there is little reason for hope? When life is far from joyful, how can we experience the true joy and peace of the Advent season? Our family has suffered many losses this year and even my children are despairing at what a bad year it has been. My husband and I are separated with little hope of reconciliation, we lost our family pets (both our dog and our cat) and have just been plagued with a series of sad events this past year. I am praying to be able to experience true joy and peace this Advent season but how can I overcome these personal sufferings? Just putting them aside for a time seems so false and futile. Any advice?
A: Before I answer your question, I want you to know – well, I want to remind you – that you are not alone in your sufferings. You are absolutely right in shying away from “just putting your sufferings aside.” Mature Christians are not Pollyannas. We don’t pretend that life in this fallen world is supposed to be hunky-dory. There is a reason that the Church requires every public place of worship to prominently display a crucifix over the altar: our journey home (to heaven) is a hard journey and during certain seasons of life, it gets really hard. Nevertheless, you are not alone. I am not making this up. Jesus tells us this, inviting us to bank on his commitment to us: “In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous: I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
I don’t know if you realized it, but you actually pose two different questions, one right after the other. First you are wondering what to do when there is “little reason for hope.” Second, you ask how we can experience Advent joy when “life is far from joyful.” Maybe reflecting on the Christian meaning of both of these words, “hope” and “joy,” will help you find some light.
Basic Joy and Basic Hope
Joy is the experience of delight that comes from possession of something good. The delight is deeper and longer lasting the more profound the “something good” is. I experience joy when I eat a brownie, because it tastes good. But the taste goes away when the brownie goes away – a very passing joy. I experience joy when I win an Olympic gold medal, and that joy will last my whole life long, recurring whenever I think about it or hold the medal in my hands, because the victory was the result of a herculean effort, extended over a very long period of time.
Hope is the anticipation of joy, or embryonic joy. When the game is coming to a close and it looks like we are going to win, we are full of hope; we are experiencing, in a sense, joy in advance. Then, when the final whistle blows and the scoreboard shows us on top, hope blossoms into full-fledged joy, because the good thing, the victory, is finally ours.
A Key for Spiritual Maturity
One of the greatest challenges in the spiritual life is learning to live true Christian joy and hope. We live on earth, in this fallen world. And we have a fallen human nature. As a result, we have a “default setting,” so to speak, that makes us seek our happiness in the good things of this world. This could be in sensual pleasure, in popularity, in our achievements – these are extremely superficial goods. But we can also seek our happiness in authentic goods: a healthy marriage and family, a good job that allows me to help build a better world, or a simple, balanced life-style that brings peace to me and those around me. Because this is our default setting, we have a strong tendency to experience deep frustration when these worldly goods let us down. We tend to think that we just need to make some kind of adjustment, and then happiness will be ours.
But there is a fundamental problem with this default setting: it is wrong. The goods of this world, whether superficial or profound, will never, can never, provide the deep, lasting joy that our hearts yearn for, that we were made for. Why? I will let the Catechism (#27) answer:
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for…
Spiritual maturity, therefore, consists largely in learning to appreciate the goods of this world in a relative manner, as means to an end. It means learning to desire God more and more, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
Advent’s Brand of Joy
From this perspective, we can begin approaching what “Advent” hope and joy really means. The word “Advent” means “coming.” The joy of Advent arises from our paying special attention to the fact that Jesus Christ came to earth two thousand years ago to conquer the powers of darkness and open the gates of heaven. He came to forgive us our sins, to heal us, to forge a path to everlasting life for us. This is an objective reality, an eternal good that we already possess through faith. But we need to remind ourselves of this good, this truth. We need to focus our attention on it, understand it, savor it, explore it, let it fill our hearts. Only then will the deep joy – a joy that no one can take from us, because no one can undo what Christ has done; the gates of heaven remain open! – of Advent begin to stir in our hearts. This is one reason why the Church gives us the seasons of Advent and Christmas, to give us a chance and encourage us to meditate on this good that we already possess.
Advent’s Brand of Hope
The “hope” of Advent comes not from Christ’s first coming, but from his future coming. Not only has Jesus come and conquered evil, reversing original sin and opening to us the gates of heaven, but he has also promised – truly promised – that he will come again. And at his second coming, he will put an end to all injustice, sin, evil, and suffering: he will finish the story of salvation that was definitively begun with his first coming. We know that as long as we keep alive our friendship with him, we are guaranteed a share in that final victory, a place in the everlasting Kingdom:
In my Father’s house there are many places to live in; otherwise I would have told you. I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you to myself, so that you may be with me where I am (John 14:2-3).
We can count on that. No matter how horrible our sufferings here on earth may be, Jesus has promised us the fulfillment of all desire, if only we persevere in our friendship with him. This is Advent hope; this is a reason for hope that nothing can change or take away.
A Way Forward
Now we are ready to approach an answer to your question. I have to warn you that it may be hard for you to accept, but here it goes. The painful, exhausting tribulations that God has permitted you to experience in recent months are, from a spiritual perspective, a golden opportunity. You are now in the middle of experiencing how passing, how fragile, how undependable even the good things of this world really are. The Holy Spirit is inviting you to, as you continue forward with your share of Christ’s cross weighing heavily on your shoulders, to life your gaze to the Star of Bethlehem, the Star that shines with an everlasting light, the North Star leading us through this valley of tears and towards our everlasting home. Right now you are not distracted by the goods of this world, because God has revealed to you their weakness, their temporality. Now is the perfect time for you to exercise your Advent hope, and to tap into the deeper, sturdier Advent joy. Now, more than ever, you have a chance to go to an entirely new level in your Christian maturity.
How can you do that? You must give more time to prayer (please look through some of our earlier posts for guidelines on prayer). And I would also recommend that you give some extra time to spiritual reading. Read about your fellow Christians who have also had to pass through dark and painful seasons in their journey home. I especially recommend a couple of books by Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, the late Archbishop of Saigon who spent 14 years in communist prison and concentration camps: Road of Hope, Five Loves and Two Fish (a very tiny book that packs a beautiful punch), and Testimony of Hope.
And remember, you are not alone. I’ll finish with another quotation from our Lord: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God, trust also in me” (John 14:1).
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD