I love Christmas. I love the story of Jesus, this vulnerable baby, born at the height of Rome, an empire that frequently overran oppressed peoples—like the Jews—through mass torture and genocide. Who knew the King of Kings and Light of the world had come? Certainly no one powerful. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, only a poor mother and father, a few shepherds, and some angels.
In the depth of our December darkness this year, I love great Advent music like Lux Venit, which cries out, “Come, light!” It’s one reason I’d argue it’s okay (even if not entirely safe) to climb a ladder and string lights outside our house. For me they are pointers to the Light of Christ, the hope of the world.
I just mentioned hope, and Drew reminded me recently about the difference between hope and optimism. I’d say it this way: Hope—theologically speaking—is that “God will make a way where there is no way,” whereas optimism asserts that “things will get better and better.”
Could we say that optimism is about “this age”—to use the New Testament vocabulary—and hope about “the age to come”? In this view, our present world, at its best, evokes optimism, while faith in Christ leads us to hope (Romans 8:12-25).
This strict dichotomy between optimism and hope even makes some sense scientifically. The noted theologian and physicist John Polkinghorne pointed out in The Faith of a Physicist that science concludes that the entire universe will ultimately wind down either in heat death or a “big crunch.” Simply put, news of hope doesn’t arise from the universe. And as Polkinghorne concluded, “An ultimate hope will have to rest in ultimate reality, that is to say, in the eternal God himself, and not in his creation.” Everything in the world of nature will eventually die, but hope is about God’s power of new life.
When we look at 2020, when we look at this world—a year marked by the exposure of racism in America, political division, and the deadly COVID pandemic—can we have either optimism or hope?
I think we can. As followers of Christ, we know that through Jesus, “the true Light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9). And through the lens of the sciences, we see where many of those beams shine.
- For the gradient of differences between hope and optimism, try this lexicon.
- C.S. Lewis gave a notable address on futility—of course, with a Latin title (de futilitate).
- Drew wrote on the science behind all this in “Hopeful Salutations.”
- Ecologist Richard Lindroth reflects on Advent hope after participating in a COVID vaccine trial.
Sightings of Lights Shining
I close with places I’ve seen Christ’s Light shining through science in an often dark 2020.
Last month, I was on a call as a member of our local medical center’s ethics committee. We create guidelines for how to allocate COVID resources. What stuck with me was not the details of ventilators, PPE, monoclonal antibodies, and vaccines, but the physicians and medical staff who clearly demonstrated that they care for their patients as people, not just numbers or lines to fill out on an insurance form, even as they serve in a pandemic at the risk of their own health.
On December 8th, we witnessed the first vaccinations against COVID in the United Kingdom, and last week, we had our first vaccinations in the United States. There, a light, a glimpse of hope.
Maybe last night (December 21), some of you observed what Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan has called “the Christmas star.” Saturn and Jupiter aligned more closely than they have in 800 years—so close they appeared as “one gigantic shining star, even though they [were] actually 450 million miles apart.”
And this month, when I talked about race, science, and faith with Elaine Howard Ecklund and Cleve V. Tinsley IV, I was inspired by Cleve’s reminder that relationships can help us move past our country’s endemic racism. Referring to Adrienne Marie Brown’s concept of “fractal community” (of course, borrowed from a mathematical image), Cleve noted Elaine’s mentoring as the kind of relationship where “she saw a spark” that inspired confidence, the kind of relationship that creates “pockets of possibility.” He reminded us: this is the way of Jesus and where we see the reign of God (that is, Christ’s Light) today. And he offered this: “I think we really do change the world then.”
Doctors who really care, vaccinations against a pandemic, relationships overcoming racism, and even a celestial star something like the one that presaged Jesus’s birth—all lights shining from the Light of Christ, our great Christmas hope.
May Christ’s Light shine in your life this Christmas,