The man was a farmer, deep in rural Indiana. He was physically strong, perhaps due in no small part to the fact that he still plowed and harvested with a team of horses. He was equally strong in his religious beliefs – so committed, in fact, that after every fall’s harvest, he gave away his team of horses. He was that convinced of the imminent second coming of Christ. He was absolutely sure in his heart that God’s love for the world would be manifested in this real, tangible way, before Christmas, certainly before the end of the year. When, in the following spring, this miracle had not yet happened, he would dutifully buy a new team of horses, and plow and plant another crop.
This story was told to me as true. It was the storyteller’s own grandfather, he said. And the story was used as an example of the difference between “hope” and “faith.”
“Hope,” he said, speaks to the future. And so the grandfather let his team of horses go every year in anticipation of what he hoped for – hoped for with all his heart – hoped for the future of the world. “Faith,” the man said, speaks to the now in life. And so the grandfather bought new horses, and planted new crops, and continued to farm as he always had – having faith that God would enable the crops to continue to grow, and he would continue to be able to feed his family and his neighbors and the world in which he lived, in the present day, as it existed.
I suspect that most of us are personally rather drawn to the ideas of “hope” and “faith” right now. I also suspect that no one can really know hope unless they are first discouraged. And I suspect that a good amount of doubt and fear accompanies faith. And who among us has not known these darker, shadow-like emotions and states-of-mind over the past couple of years?
But I also like to remember that shadows only exist on the backside of light. And, given enough patience and intentionality, it can be possible to emerge from the one into the next.
The Christmas season seems to be filled with symbols of this possibility. Advent Wreaths are one of them, I think. Historically, the Season of Advent itself was intended to focused Christian anticipation on a promise for the second coming of Christ. Over the centuries, however, it slowly evolved into a primary focus of anticipation for the birthday of Jesus. Yet it seems to me that each of these meanings is filled with its own version of hope and faith, its own moments of shadow and light, as well as its own validity and sense of anticipation.
When the first modern-day Advent Wreath appeared, it was in an urban mission school in Hamburg, Germany, in the mid-1800s. It was created to help the children of the school learn to wait, to have patience with their anticipation of Christmas. That first wreath was ringed with twenty small red candles – one for each day in the weeks leading up to the holiday – plus four white candles representing the four Sundays. Every day, a new candle was lit. When the last candle finally flamed into life, the children knew it was Christmas Day.
Perhaps we, like the children, are meant to watch our days unfold, one day at a time, with anticipation and patience, appreciating that the future can become brighter and brighter if we just keep lighting new “candles” along the way – candles that flame and signal to each other that exciting things are coming, candles with flames that illuminate the goodness in each other, candles with flames that diminish the shadows around us and behind us.
Perhaps, by practicing the patience of waiting, we can find our own individual “hope” and our own personal “faith,” this Season and beyond – for the future and for life as it is right now.
Perhaps we won’t even have to give the horses away.