Sunday we lit the first candle of Advent–the Hope Candle.

There’s an ancient saying: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”

When our longings are not fulfilled we are disappointed. How we cope with disappointment is one of the great challenges of life.

My wife and I struggled for several years with infertility. The monthly rollercoaster of hope and disappointment was excruciating. Sometimes it’s easier to not hope than to hope only to be crushed in disappointment.

Better to come in low with those expectations and be “pleasantly surprised.” Easier to manage the rollercoaster, perhaps, but this strategy may become a slow decent into cynicism if we are not careful.

Luke’s Gospel opens with two angelic pregnancy announcements. The first is to an old priest named Zechariah. He and his wife have been infertile. His response to the angel is unbelieving–preconditioned by the heart sickness of unfulfilled hopes long dead.

The second announcement is to an engaged teenager named Mary. Her response comes from faith–even though the idea of her becoming pregnant without a man is difficult to believe–a childlike faith not yet made sick by decades of disappointment.

Wisdom teaches us to calibrate our expectations with reality. I shouldn’t be hopeful that Skittles will rain from heaven and be gloomy tonight at supper when it doesn’t happen.

Yet, the pessimism that deliberately contaminates appropriate hopes with cynicism is not appropriate either.

The other half of the ancient saying goes like this: “but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

I have no idea which of our longings will be fulfilled, and which ones will go unanswered in this life. But the call for Christians is to let the Ultimate Hope of Christmas be evident in our lives. We need to be purveyors of hope. We need to teach our children (literal children, or more broadly, anyone who looks to us as a leader) to be hopeful.

The Advent Season is an exercise in hope. Our traditions are designed to build tension and anticipation as we countdown to Christmas. Then, when we open the gifts and bring out the feasting, we experience a micro-fulfillment of our longing.

Doing this year after year builds our hope “muscles” so that we have them at the ready to use when circumstances are dire and people are looking to us to learn how they should respond.

Wherever you find yourself this year between Mary and Zechariah. I pray you’ll light a candle with me and rekindle hope.

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”

I Peter 3:15