As January winds down toward February, we stand midway between New Year's Day and Ash Wednesday. Summer is a memory, spring a distant daydream. Is hope out of season amid the cold grays and browns of winter?
So accustomed have we become to labeling Advent "the season of hope" that we're unprepared to recognize other seasons that could claim the same title. What are New Year resolutions but acts of hope? Or Lenten resolutions?
Every year late December and early January bring us memory's roundup: best pictures of 2014, most significant events of…, most important people of.., top box office winners, Golden Globe nominees, Oscar contenders. We have our personal memory albums too, whether we assemble them consciously or not. Advent tried to teach us that hope builds on memory. Israel's hopes for the Messiah to come grew most eloquent when the great prophets stood in the ruins of a vanquished Jerusalem and remembered the glory days of King David-- then forged images of a new shoot sprung from the dead stump of Jesse, David's father, a new kingdom of peace and justice spread even beyond David's borders, a new and greater conqueror and ruler, anointed as David was, but this time one whose reign would bring peace and justice to those who had known neither. "Christ," as you may remember, means "anointed."
New Year's or Lenten resolutions almost always look back before taking a deep breath and pressing forward. They look back to better days, when I was thinner, more faithful to my daily walk, more seriously committed to lectio divina. Then, if they’re honest, they look back to the nearer days of failure, when I put on weight at Christmas or opted to stay inside because it was cold or found priorities more pressing than daily prayer. Then they look forward to a thinner, fitter or more prayerful me, square their shoulders, and take practical steps to turn those wishes into reality. Hope is far-seeing, unhampered by the boundaries of the present moment that blind us to past and future, but it lives and works in the here and now.
New Year's resolutions might focus on physical betterment, social betterment (I will call my mother every week), work betterment (I'll make that planner I got for Christmas work) or any betterment that inspires us.
Lenten resolutions, like Advent hope, wade deeper into our history and our future. They look back at the story of our souls thus far, and they look forward to a two-chapter future lit by the presence of God.
They look first toward the chapter that opens with Easter, toward the baptismal promises we will then renew, toward a life transformed by our own participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through deaths small or great to the bonds of our own selfish habits of being, mind, or behavior. During Lent, we make choices now that will better fit us at Easter to claim the name of Christian fully immersed in Christ. "Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus,” urges St. Paul (Philippians 2:5)--but that will require the same self-emptying, self-forgetful suffering and death that brought Christ to a life suffused and transformed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Philippians 2:6-11).
The trick is to recognize that his self-emptying wore no external drama till the very end. Christmas is too recent for us to forget that Christ began as what looked to most people as an ordinary baby, unless they happened to hear angels sing differently or see exotic strangers present even more exotic gifts on bended knee. “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3), Jesus said to the disciples. Later, he said, "“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (John 3:3), that is, without starting out all over again as a child with everything still to learn. Lent is our classroom, the Scriptures and the Rule of St. Benedict our schoolbooks (cf. RB Prologue 45).
And our resurrections, through fidelity to wise Lenten resolutions inspired by our listening to the words of One who loves us (cf. RB Prologue 1), may be as ordinary as a little child tottering across the living room floor into the arms of an encouraging parent. Ordinary, of course, except to the waiting parent!
Like Advent, which looks toward the arrival of the Child in Bethlehem, but then looks farther forward to the second coming of Christ in glory, Lenten resolutions also look toward the second chapter of our story, the farther future when the tottering child will finally run the road of the gospel in gladness of heart right into the bright glory of life everlasting (cf. RB Prologue 49). A lifetime of Lents, or a life lived as a perennial Lent, that is a perennial work of conversion, will finally fit us to find ourselves at home in that glory (cf RB 49:1).
New Year hopes, written down in our journals or planners as resolutions toward health or work or relationships may or may not have much long-term impact on our lives or the lives of those around us. The Lenten resolution, the one made concrete and specific in our yearly promises, is the resolution to grow in love of God and neighbor according to the image of Christ and with Christ's full collusion. That resolution builds toward a future not only for us but for the entire world, a future that is "far more than all we ask or imagine” (Philippians 3:20) That is the ultimate hope driving all our true resolutions. And it is God's own hope tugging us toward the fulfillment of God's great vision of a world where “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Hope out of season in winter? Never!
Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga