In Defense of Traveling Hopefully

By Hank Millstein, Content Manager and Programs Analyst.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, and I in part believe him.

Only in part, of course; I’m a Christian, and so believe that at the end of all our traveling is indeed something to be hoped for, a good that exceeds our wildest expectations. Still, there’s much to be said for travelling hopefully; it certainly beats travelling hopelessly, as too many people seem to do these days, or not travelling at all but only trying to satisfy our longings with whatever is right at hand, as perhaps an even greater number do.

Stevenson’s saying came to mind as I was strolling through my neighborhood a few days after Thanksgiving and saw that some of my neighbors had already put out their Christmas lights—and it wasn’t even Advent yet!

What’s Advent? you might ask, not surprisingly, for many even among Christians seem to have forgotten it.

Advent is one of two seasons of “traveling hopefully” laid down in the traditional Christian liturgical year; it’s a four-week period of spiritual preparation for the celebration of Christ’s coming at Christmas. (The other such season, Lent, prepares for the celebration of Christ’s victory over death in the Resurrection.) It’s a time of waiting that looks to both the past and the future—to Christ’s birth two millennia ago and to the future Second Coming of Christ when all things will be made new; it’s a time of remembering the great “not yets” of life—that the world is not yet whole, that we are not yet the glorious beings we were made to be.

And, as such, it’s out of step with the dominant attitude of this age, which wants to focus on what’s available now, with finding our fulfillment in the latest gadget dreamed up in Silicon Valley, the latest TV series, the latest relationship—as if we are afraid to admit that our lives at the present moment are anything less than the fullness of bliss, or at least that that fullness isn’t just around the corner, or more likely just past the next click of the button.

That’s perhaps why Advent is forgotten, even in many churches—because it defies our need for immediate gratification, because it calls us to see waiting as holy. That may be why retailers start putting out Christmas merchandise at Halloween and why some of my neighbors set out their Christmas decorations before the Advent season has even begun.

Traditionally, Advent, like Lent, is a season of penitence, of taking stock of ourselves and seeing where we fall short of what we could be, of seeking amends and emendation. It’s time for the spiritual work that needs to be done in calm and quiet. It’s not—not yet—the time for lights and song and celebration. Advent, again like Lent, is based on the realization that there are some things in life that—precisely because they are so wonderful, so exuberant, so utterly joyful—we daren’t rush into, that we cannot rightly meet and appreciate without a time of preparation. We need to quiet our grasping at the trivia of the present to ready ourselves to receive a future born of an infinite generosity.

Advent, then, is a training in hope; it teaches us to look beyond the inadequacies of the present to an infinite future. That’s not to say that it devalues the present; on the contrary, I’m convinced that too many of us have no present that seems worth living because we have no future worth hoping for. Only when hope illuminates the joys of the present can we truly enjoy them—precisely because we do not have to grasp at them as if they were the only good we will ever have. To travel hopefully through Advent is to let go of our compulsive grabbing at immediate gratification—and so, perhaps paradoxically, to find gratification in every present good.

At the same time, Advent’s focus on the future isn’t meant to leave me passively waiting. Christian teaching has always held that the future realm of love and justice is already present in every loving and justice-seeking act in today’s world. The Christian’s vocation is to bring that realm into the present. To travel hopefully requires us to begin to enact our hoped-for future in today’s world. That’s my deepest motivation for what I do at ING, bringing people of different faiths or of no faith together to build that realm of shalom that is my Advent hope—the realm that Jesus—and, each in his or her own way, Muhammad, Moses, Buddha, and many others also—preached and lived.