Two pieces of music encapsulate the spirit of Advent for me. One is the plainchant Rorate Caeli and the other is Bach’s Cantata 140, Wachet auf (“Wake, O wake, for night is flying”). Its words are based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins who hear the watchman’s cry announcing the arrival of the bridegroom at midnight; and its music is based on Philipp Nicolai’s magnificent chorale of 1599. Both pieces in their way give voice to longing, and it is longing which focuses hope and gives it the affective, dynamic quality which makes it radically different to mere optimism.

Hope is a more demanding virtue because it recognises that the very fact of the glass being half full means that fullness is the only standard to which we should aspire, and that fullness in turn justifies hope and, so to speak, makes it functional. Faith tells us that the progress of history is that Christ will be all in all. Optimism says that things will turn out all right even though I can’t quite see how. Christian hope teaches that when I hope for fulfilment, this hope is not deceptive, it is directed towards Christ’s saving action. It says that Christ is in the midst of my history, and that when I seek him and enthrone him there I am welcoming the very fullness of who and what I can be, the fullness of what existence has to offer.

Advent is a time for examining what – or, rather, whom – I hope for, a time for purifying hope. It invites me to examine myself not in the sentimental glow of Christmas lights and yuletide cheer but against the certainty of the Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. It is not a question of whether I get a glow thinking about Baby Jesus, but whether I will have the courage to stand with confidence before the Son of Man when he comes on the clouds as Judge.

For we are still earthbound and subject to death until we live in the hope that Christ will come to save us. As this hope grows in Jesus as the Pleroma, the fullness of history, both personal and collective, so I will become free, for the more my hope deepens and depends ever more on the saving action of God, the less it depends on visible, human or created things for my sense of fullness and security. “He who hopes in God trusts God whom he never sees, to bring him to the possession of things that are beyond his imagination,” says Thomas Merton.

The Christmas preface reminds us that this is the point of the Incarnation: by seeing God made visible in the flesh, we are to be caught up in the love of the God we cannot see. The historical fact of the Incarnation long ago does not complete mankind’s history with God. Rather, it opens history and my “now” to immortal longings: to find completion in God’s life. To look back is, by definition, to look forward to the Christ who will come again. To celebrate God’s Son, born among us, is to remind us to live now awaiting the “blessed hope and the coming of Our Saviour, Jesus Christ”. To live in hope, then, is to purify desire. It is to repent, to change my mind about where I find the wellspring of happiness. It is to learn to live for what comes from outside my history and experience, for a fulfilment which grows more complete by being long-awaited – the very opposite of anticipating the feasting of Christmas and looking backwards to Bethlehem.

The Virgin Mary conceived Christ in her heart before she conceived him in her womb, says St Augustine. She conceived Jesus in hope. His incarnation in her womb was a direct result of her graced ability to hope, in that the presence of the Lord can always do more than we can ask or even imagine to be possible.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection