Twenty years ago today, so the legend goes, the hopeless step-grandmother of a wild child saw a red sign on a gray door: “Enter Here in Peace.” Though the parlous state of her soul belied the mode of entry, she took the child by the hand, and they walked through the door. There, they found the peace she sought–and love and joy and hope. These are the promises of Advent.
I was that woman who walked into St Christopher’s Episcopal Church on the first Sunday of Advent in 1996. There, I found all I needed as I moved with my new family through my first circuit of the liturgical calendar–Advent to Christmas to Epiphany, Lent to Easter, Pentecost through the long season of ordinary time, each with its challenges, each with its promises, each with its unique hope for change and renewal.
Advent, however, was the perfect season in which to begin my new story, and it is the season that continues to speak to me most clearly when it is damp and drizzly and November in my soul. We Episcopalians sing no Christmas carols during this season of quiet contemplation. We try to avoid the hurly-burly of the commercialized Christmas season in favor of meditation, prayer, study, and purification. We call it the season of hope, but what we really do is wait and expect. And that’s what brings me to Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all.
Contemplating the beginning of the new church year, my 21st Advent, I was struck anew by the nature of this metaphor, which has more than once provided me with fertile ground for Advent meditation. This time, I became newly and keenly aware of the implication that hope is a thing.
Despite our protestations of postmodernism, we are still children of Descartes and Bacon, proponents of a mishmash of Enlightenment rationality and modernist empiricism. We believe in the scientific method and in things that can be observed and measured and tested. So if hope is a thing, we can hold it and know it–and verify it.
And not only by Dickinsonian trope, but also through etymology, hope is a thing: “c. 1200 as ‘expectation of something desired’; . . . late 14c. as ‘thing hoped for,’ also ‘grounds or basis for hope.'” Like the Spanish infinitive esperar, which translates as “to wait, to hope, to expect”–all of them in one word!–the history of the English word expect tells us more:
1550s, “wait, defer action,” from Latin expectare/exspectare “await, look out for; desire, hope, long for, anticipate; look for with anticipation,” from ex-“thoroughly” + spectare “to look,” frequentative of specere “to look at.” Figurative sense of “anticipate, look forward to” developed in Latin and is attested in English from c. 1600. Also from c. 1600 as “regard as about to happen.” Meaning “count upon (to do something), trust or rely on” is from 1630s.
Thing. Grounds. Basis. To look at. To regard. These are the words of science–the ruler, the microscope, the graduated cylinder, the computed tomography scanner. And the foundation of scientific replicability is verification: “from Medieval Latin verificare ‘make true.'”
I am not arguing nor even suggesting that enacting the hope of Advent is in any way comparable to performing the scientific method. What I do posit is that looking at the history of the Advent words can help us to understand afresh that what we hope for during this season of renewal is real in ways that we sometimes forget in this age of things–that our hope is true. Like our faith, it is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 KJV).