In the Christian church, this is the Season of Advent—a time of waiting for something that hasn’t happened yet.
The thing we’re expecting, of course, is the birth of Jesus, the Christ. Which makes Advent a bit self-contradictory. Because if it hadn’t happened yet, we wouldn’t be gathering in churches called “Christian.”
And if it hadn’t happened yet, then we would have to believe we’re living in a world which has not yet discovered God embodied among us.
A world without God?
Many people might say that we already live in a godless world. Shoppers frantically run up their credit limits. Fraud artists bilk seniors of their savings. Corporations cut safety corners, and market tainted or dangerous products to gullible consumers. National leaders kill their own people, or target suspected terrorists with drones and assassination squads.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world, they’d say. Survival of the fittest. Get real, buster!
I’m not convinced.
In my tradition, the four Sundays of Advent usually have themes—Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. They’re virtues we practice, in anticipation of the coming (once again) of the Christ presence. They’re not the only possible virtues, of course; I might like to add Reason, Intelligence, Honesty, Health.
Still, those four virtues make a good place to start.
I think I know how to live lovingly. So, incidentally, does my dog. She gives me unconditional love, even adoration. I struggle to live up to her example—with her, and with my fellow humans.
She also embodies joy—just watch her dancing at the door as we prepare to go out for a winter walk. Would that I could be as openly joyful.
And peace? Is anything more peaceful than a dog snoozing in a pool of sunlight? Well, maybe a cat curled up in my lap. I try to emulate their peacefulness.
But do animals know hope? Hope is harder to express. They know short-term hope, certainly. My dog hopes we’ll come home, that I’ll feed her, that I’ll throw a ball for her to retrieve…
Long-term hope, I’m less sure of. Does a maltreated dog hope for a more compassionate home? Do egg-factory chickens hope for a free-range future? Do cattle herded towards the slaughterhouse hope for greener pastures?
It’s hard to tell. Even I, supposedly a more intelligent creature, don’t know how my way of living might demonstrate hope.
Of course, hope has its opposite, its shadow side. I have no doubt that animals experience fear. A beaten dog cowers before the stick. Cattle panic. Even flocks of quail—possibly the only creatures whose collective IQ dips below zero—scatter wildly before an onrushing car.
If animals can feel fear, perhaps they can also feel hope. Even if it’s not physically evidenced in their behaviour.
And that, strangely, gives me hope. Perhaps, as I look forward once more for a night when holiness is again embodied among us, living hopefully is not so much about what I do or say, but about the quality of my waiting