From Advent to Epiphany: the nature of hope, and hope for nature
Happy New Year!? What will 2013 hold? If forecasts are correct, then we’ll see more hurricanes, droughts, floods, crop failures, wildlife extinctions, urban drift, and desperate people attempting to escape poverty. Not to mention global economic gloom. With resource depletion hitting home, perhaps the scarcest commodity of all is hope. What hope can Christians have for the future of the earth, or of our own species? Will God wave a magic wand and make everything good again, or will we be whisked away from a dying planet to an otherworldly paradise?
I want to suggest that the biblical roots of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany offer us clues to the nature of our hope, and of our hope for nature. Advent offers us three dimensions of hope in the past, present and future coming of Christ. Christmas is about hope incarnate, fleshed out in the real world in Jesus. Epiphany remembers the gifts offered to the infant Christ and what they symbolise, but it means more: an Epiphany is God’s self-revelation, a vision of who God really is – hope from another dimension breaking in. Let’s explore these further:
Hope rooted in the past: the first Advent is God’s ‘Yes!’ to material creation in sending Jesus to be born, to live, die and rise again. When the angels spoke ‘Peace on earth’ to shepherds outside Bethlehem those words didn’t convey the nostalgia of sleigh bells and yuletide logs. When first-century shepherds protecting flocks from predators heard ‘Peace on earth’, they would have thought of Isaiah’s promises of God’s peaceful kingdom: lions lying down with lambs; ‘shalom’ throughout the created order. The baby of Bethlehem spoke hope for the reconciliation and renewal of all creation.
Hope for the future: ‘O come, O come, Immanuel’ is a cry of hopeful longing for Christ’s promised return as judge and saviour. God’s promises offer a future and a hope for this material earth and its creatures. Not only every human, but every creature in heaven and on earth will acknowledge Christ as Lord. However there is an important rider to this promise. Future hope doesn’t preclude disaster now. Biblical hope is often about restoration for a remnant following the devastation of war, famine or exile. The certainty of Jesus’ victorious return does not give us immunity from the self-inflicted ecological apocalypse that scientists are predicting.
So, what of hope for today? Our hope today is also of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Christ comes, by his Spirit, into the earth’s abandoned and polluted places. Christ is born anew amidst the chaos, not miraculously rescuing us out of it, but enabling us to remain faithful and persevere. And as we respond to God’s gift by offering our gifts and ourselves to God, we may experience an Epiphany – a vision of God’s future breaking into the present, a glimpse of the healing of the land, a sign of God’s coming Kingdom, with broken places restored, creatures reconciled, and people rediscovering God’s image.