Regarding hope, the literary critic Terry Eagleton gives elegant expression to many of our doubts: “Hope is a slender reed, a castle in the air, agreeable company but a poor guide, fine sauce but scanty food.” But why is this our default setting when it comes to hope? Why do we tend to equate it with wishful thinking, rather than staunch realism? It’s worth considering these questions as we enter into Advent season—a time of penitence, great expectation, and yes, hope. As easily as we may slide into the assumption that hope is little more than an evanescent lift in our spirits before the harsh realities of our daily circumstances haul us back to earth, it’s worth remembering that Christians are hopeful realists.
Hopeful Realists in Scripture
From Abraham and Isaiah to Mary and Joseph, the scriptural roster is filled to the brim with hopeful realists—people whose unsparing realism precludes neither the harsh realities of “life under the sun,” nor the redemptive arc of an eternal perspective. Since we’re lighting candles on our advent wreaths, however, let’s turn to a seasonal exemplar.
We first meet Simeon at Jesus’s dedication at the temple (Luke 2:22-25). Though the details on this man are scant, Luke informs us that he was “righteous” and “devout,” and that he kept vigil at the temple because he was anxiously awaiting “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Moreover, the textual detail that the Holy Spirit had “revealed to him that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ” has led commentators to surmise that Simeon was quite old.
The human body is one of time’s most dramatic canvases, and we tend to greet the onslaught of shrinking hairlines, expanding waistlines, and sunken cheeks with a mixture of laughter and tears. Likewise, the years tend to callus our minds and hearts in much the same way that intensive manual labor will transform a smooth pair of hands into the sandpaper talons of a carpenter. When it comes to the sense of hope in our lives, few things can compete with the ravages of time. If we find hope difficult, we’re simply struggling to find the right perspective. If, on the other hand, we think of hope as unrealistic, naïve, or impossible, we’ve grown cynical. Time-worn Simeon can show us a better way.
Simeon’s New Hope
Before we get to Simeon’s magnificent prophesy—the pronouncement we now lovingly call “the Song of Simeon,” it’s worth pausing to take account of Mary and Joseph’s response: “His father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. (Luke 2:33).” These young parents are greeted by this aging servant of the Lord, only to have him connect the salvation of the entire world with the squirming infant in his arms:
you can dismiss your servant in peace,
as you promised.
For my eyes have seen your salvation.
You have prepared it
in the presence of all peoples—
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.
Notice that the scope of Simeon’s hope is now colossally expanded. This is not just the consolation of Israel, but a revelation to the Gentiles—a cosmic vision of hope that includes the whole world. In Simeon, we encounter a man who was well acquainted with life’s hardships. He was pining after the consolation of his nation because of the turmoil surrounding him. Implicit in all hope is the notion that present circumstances can (and indeed must) be transformed. Under the Spirit’s inspiration, Simeon doesn’t look to an earthly King or political leader to usher in the lasting change;” he looks to a helpless baby who will one day conquer sin and death on a Roman instrument of torture and humiliation. It’s a vision so strange, so counterintuitive, so utterly foreign to our basic fleshly mindset that it could only have come from heaven to earth.
This Advent season, may our hope be grounded in an eternal perspective, rather than one that can’t look beyond the horizon of this world. As Simeon shows us, such is the habit of hopeful realists.