In 1963 Thomas Merton wrote an essay titled, “Advent: Hope or Delusion?” Although I am particularly biased and would generally say that all of Merton’s work is good, I find this essay to be particularly good, especially during the season of Advent.
Unlike much of what’s available this time of year, Merton’s reflection is direct and substantial. His consideration of the meaning and place of the season of Advent and its relationship to the profound theological tradition of Christian Hope is refreshingly insightful amid the too-often “fluffy” seasonal Adventmas (the generic “Advent” material that really focuses more on Christmas than it does on Advent itself).
So without taking away from the profundity of Merton’s own words with more introduction than is necessary, I offer below some snippets from the lengthy essay for your prayerful meditation. All italicization and any gender-exclusive pronoun use is from the original text.
Selections from Thomas Merton’s “Advent: Hope or Delusion?”
The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.
It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonize with our tendencey to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy. Advent should remind us that the “King Who is to Come” is more than a charming infant smiling (or if you prefer a dolorous spirituality, weeping) in the straw. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional family jours of Christmas, nor need we be ashamed to find ourselves still able to anticipate them without too much ambivalence. After all, that in itself is no mean feat.
But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer. The advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent…
In our time, what is lacking is not so much the courage to ask this question as the courage to expect an answer…We may at times be able to show the world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some confirmation of the Christian message. But the fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be. The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will. Our Advent is a celebration of this hope.