I was listening to MPR a while back and heard an interview with a psychologist who said that, according to her research, the single, biggest key to living a healthy life is staying optimistic. In one of those voices that was so pleasant and friendly and sugary sweet that it got on your nerves, she said:
“Optimists have less stress, better marriages, and healthier diets. They tend to have a sunnier outlook on the world, which translates to positive self-esteem and self-confidence. Optimists generally believe that things are getting better, that humanity is improving, the world’s problems are being solved.”
And then, to clinch her point, she said: “We also discovered that optimists live longer than other people.”
As a Christian minister I thought: “If that statement about optimists is really true, then there is no way that Jesus could have been an optimist. For he was dead at 33.”
While some Christians are always a delight to be around, always cheerful and positive, Christmas hope is fundamentally different from optimism.
Christian hope has very wide and focused eyes on the devastation of the world, and Christmas hope readily acknowledges that things may not get better. Christmas hope does not bury its head in yuletide cheer and artificial lights, but like an Advent wreath glowing stronger and brighter each week, Christmas hope pushes its way into the brokenness of this world, clearing a path in the darkness so that the true light might shine.
Christian hope has the courage to work for the Biblical vision of justice, healing and liberation, trusting that such working is a testimony, a witness to the Light: The light that came through Jesus to teach us that God loves us and God is with us and God will never leave us and never forsake us; The Light that reveals God will stay by our side and resurrect all of our sorrow into joy, our despair into hope and our deaths into life.
Tom Long tells a story about rabbi Hugo Grynn who was sent to Aushwitz as a little boy. In the concentration camp, in the midst of death and immense suffering, many Jews held on to whatever shreds of religious observance they could without drawing the attention of the guards. One cold winter’s evening, Hugo’s father gathered the family in the barracks. It was the first night of Chanukah, the Feast of Lights. The young child watched in horror as his father took the family’s last stick of butter and made a makeshift candle using a string from his ragged clothes. He then took a match and lit the candle.
“Father, no!” Hugo cried. “That butter is our last bit of food! How will we survive?”
“We can live for many days without food,” his father said. “But we cannot live a single minute without hope. This is the fire of hope. Never let it go out. Not here. Not anywhere.”
It is Christmas Eve. These days are darker, both literally and figuratively. We are surrounded by never-ending questions of pain and sadness—a world groaning for salvation. Tonight we light our candles, hear the Christmas story and say our prayers, and wait for the coming Christ. We wait for the Light that will never go out.
We are not being merely optimistic. But in Christ, we possess an abundance of faith, trust and confidence that God is Emmanuel, God with us and God for us, and the day is coming when God’s Light will come and rid this world of darkness forever bringing forth a new and glorious creation!