Two friends of mine had an online interpretive disagreement about Emily Dickinson’s poem, with its familiar opening lines:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
One friend declared that this was an overly sweet sentiment which expressed a weak and wimpy hope, nothing more than a wish. She advocated a more “robust, muscular hope,” one that leads us forward in more concrete ways.
My second friend suggested that the lightness of feathers was not a sign of downy fluff, but rather of buoyancy. Dickinson’s hope, she argued, is precisely the tough and resilient hope that carries us through the hard stuff of adversity, as evidenced in the poem’s later lines:
[Hope] sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I suppose that angels, like Dickinson’s hope, are imagined as having feathers because messengers of God must lift us, carry us to a place of security and trust–and yes, to a place of action as well. Surely it was to action that the angels’ messages led Zechariah, and Mary, and Joseph. But in the first instance what they heard was hope. Not weak, but robust. Not just wishful, but strengthening.
Advent hope is to be distinguished from Christmas wishes, as popularly understood. At Christmas our wishes are apt to be relatively tangible, fairly immediate and typically self-directed. My Christmas Wish List usually has some books, some clothing, a few CDs. Advent hope has nothing to do with such wishes. Those wishes will be met or not met. The sun will set on them swiftly enough. But Advent hope is neither quickly fulfilled nor quickly dismissed. Advent hope is a path with no horizon, an imperfective verb without completion, a promise without end.
Advent hope calls to my deepest yearnings. It is indeed the thing perching in my soul, singing the tune through gale and storm. Advent hope is the feathered angel announcing once more, “You Zechariah, you Mary, you Joseph; you Sandra, you Bill, you Eduardo; you, and you, and you, … you are important to me. For my work is afoot, and you are a part of it. It will be hard, and I will be with you.”
Our Christmas celebration will come, but our Advent hope does not end, for our very life is lived in Advent expectation. In Advent, and in every season of your life: Wait, with infinite patience; prepare, with trusting expectation; hope, without end!
Faithfully and fondly,
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
Home page image: CREATION: LIGHT! by Gay P. Cox oil, 68x68 inches