This Advent I’m delighted to bring you a variety of voices – authors, pastors, theologians, and philosophers – each of whom has a unique and beautiful take on a particular passage of Scripture related to the Advent season.
My prayer is that these reflections would help guide your devotional life as you participate in this season of holy waiting.
Without further ado, here’s today’s reflection from theologian, pastor–and my dear husband!–Daryl Ellis.
Hope * An Advent Reflection by Daryl Ellis
As an academic theologian-turned-pastor, I’m often engaged in a kind of translation. The point of my life nowadays is rarely to make a theological point just for the sake of making it. Instead it’s all about picking up the right theological insight at the right time to illuminate someone’s life in the light of the gospel. There’s an entire art to this contextualized theology that I’m still learning.
(Some cliff’s notes from my hard-won lessons: don’t casually refer to “Being” or “theological anthropology” or “I touched upon that point in my dissertation…”)
Another thing I’ve learned: only very rarely do I mention theologians by name anymore. Nothing says “abstract” like inserting Melanchthon or Irenaeus into the teachable moment of the pastorate, no matter how well-intended the reference might be.
Still, there have been exceptions to this rule of leaving the footnote unsaid. One of the most consistent has been Thomas Aquinas’s grouping together of a set of emotions that he calls the irascible passions. Under this banner he lists our main theme—hope—in addition to despair, daring, fear, and anger.
There are all sorts of reasons why I’ve found myself referring to this part of Aquinas more often than I would have expected in ministry. The most obvious reason is simply because our culture as a whole often lacks the resources to make sense of ourselves in this regard. No wonder so many of us have a hard time talking about emotions. We need a map.
That sort of map is Aquinas’s specialty.
So what kind of map might he give us for hope this Advent? What Aquinas’s irascible passions hold in common is that they all arise when what we desire is arduous to obtain. In other words, one does not usually need hope or daring when desiring French fries. The road to the nearest McDonald’s or Sonic is usually neither long nor arduous and thus desire (hmm… I could go for some…) quickly leads the pleasure of obtaining (mmmmm…).
But many of our deepest desires are not so easily obtained. Peace in our families (especially during the holidays). Patience with our kids (particularly at bedtime). Justice for the downtrodden and dispossessed. Purpose in our vocations. Freedom from anxiety. Meaningful and lasting friendships. A harvest of new faith both in my neighborhood and in the nations (Come, Lord Jesus).
And there’s that great desire put in front of us in Advent:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout… Then we will be the the Lord forever –1 Thessalonians 4
The road to each of these is indeed long and arduous. And, so, Aquinas says they are matters that engender hope, despair, daring, fear, and anger. Though, of course, each of our hearts told us that anyways.
On the matter of hope in particular, Aquinas puts it right next to despair on the map of our emotions. How are they related? The difference between hope and despair comes in how we evaluate the arduous obstacles between us and that which we truly desire. The difference in whether we believe that the obstacles can be overcome.
When faced with the arduous route between here and being “with the Lord forever”—or just between now and my kids finally being in bed—the pivotal thing is whether I believe that the obstacles can be overcome. When I fear they can’t be, I shrink back from the arduous road and collapse in despair. When I look them in the eye and conclude that, even though the obstacles are threatening and arduous, they are in the end surmountable, then hope rises—and maybe daring!—that one way or another I’ll keep going and make it home.
I’ve always found Aquinas’s way of mapping the crucial triad of us/obstacles/ultimate desire to be tremendously illuminating in my everyday life. For until Jesus comes again there is no permanent release from the tension of having to face the obstacles and decide what to do. Whether to hope or shrink back in despair. The landscape of the arduous looms large and too easily eclipses the dawning of hope in my heart.
But, in the end, I am reminded too that which we desire—who we desire in the end—can also change our perspective on the obstacles in front of us. We’re not just left to give ourselves pep talks, which is good because I see through my own one-liners pretty quickly these days.
Jesus speaks forth from the other side:
Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. –John 16:33
Or, as Paul writes in Phil 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
In these passages, we glimpse the peculiar hope of the gospel: even as we journey through the arduous road of today and tomorrow, in some decisive way Jesus has already taken ahold of us and already overcome and conquered the obstacles that loom so large in our minds and in our hearts.
In other words, the map for our hope is totally different than we first imagined it to be. It has, in fact, been made new.
Daryl Ellis is a pastor and theologian in southern California. When he isn’t reading Thomas Aquinas, you’ll find him awakening to hope in his smoothie greens garden, taking his kids to the park, seeking out the best tacos in the west, or going to an improv night with the love of his life, Courtney.