Emily Dickinson tells us that “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” Let’s forget all about the image in our minds of a frail and not-too-attractive woman with her hair pulled primly to the nape of her neck, who wrote poems on the flaps of envelopes and pined after Thomas Wentworth Higginson and whose life can be summed up in three sad phrases: born in Amherst, lived in Amherst, died in Amherst. In fact, let’s forget about Emily Dickinson altogether. The images she created on those scraps of paper had to wait almost four decades to come alive after that prim and enigmatic woman died in Amherst in 1886.
So let’s start over and concentrate on the words and the image:
Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops at all.
There’s more, but we’ll stop here for now.
Advent begins this year on November 30—the beginning of the liturgical year. John N. Wall’s Dictionary for Episcopalians describes it this way: “A season of solemn preparation for remembering Christ’s incarnation at Christmas and for anticipating the eschatological fulfillment of his promise to return in power and great glory. The season’s biblical readings focus on the endtime and on God’s promises for the people of Israel and the church of Christ.” Further, this reference points out that Advent is traditionally considered one of the two penitential seasons in the church calendar, the other being Lent.
I first came to the Episcopal Church during Advent in 1996, and since that time it has become my favorite season of he church year. A time of preparation. A time of purification. A time of sanctification. A time of waiting. A time of—hope, yes, the thing with feathers.
During the last half of 2003, we who consider ourselves orthodox Episcopalians have experienced an over-long season of waiting. From the time we learned of the decision in New Hampshire, we have waited. We waited for the General Convention. We waited for the Primates’ meeting in Lambeth. We waited for November 2. Frankly, we are weary of all this waiting. We see our church being torn asunder, we bid farewell to friends who can no longer worship where they believe scriptural authority is being denied, we pray for guidance, and we cling to one another because this is the only family we know. We realize that God’s time is not our time, but sometimes the view is very grim from our perspective.
And so we approach this blessed season of Advent, the season when we have more waiting and expecting and hoping to do. Yet during Advent, we can be assured that hope is the thing with feathers. Scripture provides us with several feathery metaphors to remind us of God’s promise of steadfast love. In Psalm 91:4, we read: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be our shield and rampart.” When we are sorrowful, fearful, alone, when we have nowhere else to turn, we can turn to him for refuge and comfort, for protection and rest for our souls.
Isaiah tells us, “Those whose hope is in the Lord will renew their strength. The will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint” (40:31). Not only does the Lord provide comfort. This image reminds us of the tremendous power we can obtain when we rely on his ability to energize us and sustain us.
And because we have been given the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit—often represented by another feathered creature, the dove—we have the hope, the comfort, the strength, and the power of God walking alongside is, in us, through us. I often find myself sitting with hands open, palms up, asking the Lord to fill me. Whatever the physical posture, though, we need to approach the Lord day by day with that same plea for renewal of the Spirit in our lives, as we often sing, “Open our eyes, Lord; we want to see Jesus.”
This is precisely where we part company with Emily Dickinson. Of the “little bird” in her poem, she concludes, “Yet, never, in extremity. it asked a crumb of me.”
The hope we have—the hope we enact year when we light the Advent candles and change the altar colors to purple and sing “Come, thou long expected Jesus”—does ask something of us. Our hope is active, expectant, waiting. In this year of 2003, we have witnessed events that have challenged us to re-evaluate our Christian lives in very fundamental ways. It has been a painful process, and it will continue. Foremost, we need to develop patience. We must believe that God has a plan in all this pruning he is doing. We must prepare to receive Jesus precisely by ridding ourselves of despair. We must examine our lives, clean out the dark corners, the grudges, the missed opportunities, the forgotten promises. We must open ourselves to new ways of seeing and hearing and living the Good News joyfully, because we know that God is with us—Emmanuel.
And we must remember that the hope we have is sure: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
Come, Lord Jesus.