The Difficult Transition from Christmas to Easter Hope
Reflections on Life and Death–
Three decades ago, I visited my grandmother in a nursing home in New London, Iowa and could not believe my eyes. It had been months since my last visit and I had to look carefully to be certain of her identity. She was restrained in a wheelchair, an unwilling slave of the present. I was stunned to see my robust grandma had gradually withered to 90 pounds and had practically no hair. She now refused to open her eyes. She was shutting out the world more and more each day. She was speaking to no one now. She looked exhausted from being bombarded by age and cancer. I knew that she wanted to die and couldn’t. I wondered, what does Christian hope say in this circumstance? What good is faith in this situation? What good is her hope in this context? Should I hope that she will get better, or should I hope that God would call her life to a merciful end? I knew the best alternative, but I found it difficult to pray for death. I encountered a great struggle in making the transition in my mind and heart from my grandma living on Earth to one of my spiritual mentors departing to Heaven!
Later that month, I found myself driving to see a beloved friend the afternoon before open-heart surgery. Her doctor had explained that the chances were 60-40 that she would not pull through the surgery. Even if she did, her chances of a very long survival were minimal. I wondered how I could speak a word of hope to her as we talked about the surgery that she might not survive. What could I say to her about hope? I wanted to carefully balance hope for recovery and yet assure her that her hope did not solely depend on surgical success. Similar examples befall all of us. The problem continues to appear time and again––how can we maintain a true hope in those circumstances when health and aging are totally out of our control?
Everyone has tragic situations that cause despair. During those times, we find it difficult to cope. We need something, someone, to assure us that there is a way for the Christian to move through the present into the future.
Hope should be special for Christians. Hope allows us to step into a dismal future with confidence. Our hope in God’s control of the future allows us to live optimistically. Hope keeps the Christian steadfast. Paul wrote, “we continually remember…your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thessalonians 1:3 NIV) You will remember that Paul named hope as a great foundation of the Christian faith. “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13) Despite Paul’s priority of love, times occur when we need hope more than love.
Two types of hope are clearly present in the Bible even though they are not specifically separated and titled. I call one level “Christmas Hope” and the other “Resurrection Hope.”
Christmas hope manifests itself in the birth of a little baby with his/her whole life before him. It is the hope for a meaningful life full of love here on this Earth. This hope focuses on the present and the immediate future. It believes that God will help people find meaning and happiness in this life. This hope trusts that when people get ill they can get better. When people get depressed, they can recover. It believes people can receive their daily bread instead of suffering in poverty. The nature of temporal Christmas hope centers on the physical, the financial, and the desire to help build the kingdom of God on earth. This hope is personally designed for the times of our life here on this Earth. It centers on the hope to live this life abundantly. Christmas hope urges us to relate, laugh, play, create, share, feel, think, plan, talk, and love. It urges the “milking” of life to the fullest. The problem with this kind of hope is that at some point it has an end. Sometime that end comes quickly, in the blink of an eye. Other times, the end affords everyone the opportunity to transition from one hope to another. We don’t like to think about it. This hope must say one day, “it is nearly finished.” We do not like to think about it, but everyone’s earthly life is limited. Christmas hope only lasted for 33 years for Jesus. We need something more than a temporal hope when a meaningful existence on this earth fades.
Fortunately, Christmas hope is not all we have. Christ’s resurrection provides a model for another kind of hope––Easter hope. Easter hope supports Christmas hope. Most of our life it doesn’t dominate our thinking. Instead, it surrounds and even informs our Christmas hope. But Easter hope supersedes Christmas hope. Christmas hope is existential. Easter hope is eschatological. One enjoys the present and the other prepares us for an eternal future. Though we concentrate more on Christmas hope, Easter hope remains the most important. Our Christmas hope is enriched by Easter hope. Both hopes are based on the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter hope usually surfaces when Christmas hope gets in jeopardy. It centers on the spiritual and the eternal areas or reality and it focuses on a new Jerusalem, a new body, a new Earth, and a new peace.
While with Christmas hope we sometimes struggle to find a reason to live, with resurrection hope we know we will live! With this understanding, hope never disappears; it is gently turned to God’s promise of eternity.
Christian maturity based on faith and trust involves the ability to make a gradual shift from temporal hope to eternal hope during our expected lifespan. We sometimes wobble between the two hopes, wondering where we should concentrate. Unfortunately, this shift has to occur more quickly in the situation of a terminal illness. Such an illness causes the person and their family to shift from hope to hope according to an unpredictable schedule.
Recently I was speaking with a man who is well into his 70’s. I shared my perplexity over when a person should begin to shift the emphasis in the object of his or her hope. I said, “If we get heavily bound to quickly, we miss the joy in mission of this life. If we get fixed on earthly hope too long, we get discouraged and miss the joy of heavenly expectations and spiritual preparation.”
He said, “Bob, I am 75 and I’ve already shifted gears. My primary hope now rests in heaven. I still enjoy life, but I’m concentrating more on heaven.” He said, “Resurrection hope, as you call it, has become my focus.”
His attitude deserves consideration. The timing of transfer of hope is a personal matter. The transfer of hope from a worldly focus to a heavenly one involves a struggle. Wasn’t Jesus coping with this balanced between living on earth and passing into eternity when he communicated with God in Gethsemane and said, “Not my will, but thy will be done!” The humanity of Jesus did not want to leave the earth. But he submitted to the hour and began to shift his hope from bringing the kingdom of God on earth to joining the kingdom of God in heaven.
Just a few Sundays ago I heard a sermon that pointed me to the very moment when I think Jesus made the full transition from Christmas to Easter hope. The key verses are in John 12:27-28.
23And Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. 26“If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.
Jesus Foretells His Death
27“Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. 28“Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
It seems sound to assume that at that point, Jesus saw the moment had arrived when his soul was at it deepest point of struggling with the acceptance of his death, that he realized it was time to shift from glorifying God through his life and request that “God be glorified through Christ’s death!” Just as verse 27 says, Jesus gave up on being saved in some miraculous way and gave it all over to the “Glory of the Resurrection.”
Paul also recorded his struggle with the transfer of emphasis of one hope to another. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I go on living in this body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I’m torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21–24) This is our challenge. Shifting hope always creates an uncomfortable tension. We do not detach from this world easily. In fact, we don’t usually want our beloved friends or friends to detach from their physical role in our life.
Thomas Jefferson said, “When hope is gone, what is left? We say of this one or that one, he has lost heart. What we really mean is that he is lost hope. When hope dies, then the heart goes out of man.”
Christians do not need to lose heart; our hope continues––only our emphasis changes. Today, we live and rejoice with the temporal Christmas hope; but tomorrow we may have to step reluctantly but confidently into an eternal Easter hope.
It is interesting that in 2009 I visited both Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Bethlehem touched me much less than Jerusalem. When I reached Golgotha and saw with my own eyes an open tomb similar to that from which Jesus emerged after his resurrection, I better understood the assurance of Easter hope!