Hope is an overused word and an underrated virtue.
We "hope" for all kinds of things, from the trivial to the profound. But hope is both a habit and a discipline. It is an orientation toward the future based on the conviction that we live in an ultimately trustworthy universe. Hope is the virtue on which faith and love depend.
Even more than faith and love, I think, hope is closest to the heart of the Christmas story. In an anthropological sense, Christmas celebrates new life and birth, a theme that crosses cultures and traditions. This sense of Christmas has a beauty all its own and embodies a nearly universal quest for renewal.
But in the theological sense as understood by Christians, the holiday is even more radical. Christianity -- drawing on the Jewish scriptures, particularly Isaiah -- revolutionized the concept of the divine by putting aside deities who dominated humanity in favor of a God who entered the world in human form.
Thus were authoritarian conceptions swept away in favor of a loving God sympathetic to creation and empathetic toward human suffering. Think about the line from John's Gospel: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him." John was not some 1960s hippie. He was offering something very new and important, a trustworthy God who inspired hope.
I'm not trying to convert anyone here, but I do want to suggest that Christmas might help us see that both Christianity and Judaism are fundamentally progressive traditions. I do not use "progressive" in a narrow political sense. All great religious traditions are, in some ways and necessarily, both progressive and conservative.
But it's quite clear that the Christmas, Easter and Exodus stories are about freedom and liberation. All promise that the distance between God and humanity can be overcome, that deliverance is possible.
In his book "Exodus and Revolution," the philosopher Michael Walzer captured the power of this liberation narrative. "Wherever people know the Bible, and experience oppression," he wrote, "the Exodus has sustained their spirits and (sometimes) inspired their resistance." And talk about hope: Moses marched toward the Promised Land without having any idea what awaited him.
That's why I dissent from Christopher Hitchens's bold assertion in the subtitle of his bracing atheist polemic that "religion poisons everything."
On the contrary, for all of the sins committed in the name of religion -- yes, there are many -- the great faiths were indispensable in pointing us down a path toward liberty and justice. If I may borrow from Jesse Jackson, these traditions helped us, in dark times, to keep hope alive.
The Christian message is frequently drained of this larger meaning and interpreted, often by Christians themselves, as being solely or primarily about personal salvation. But this sells the tradition short.
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a fascinating encyclical on the idea of Christian hope in which he explicitly disputed the idea of "the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others." Drawing on the theologian Henri de Lubac, Benedict argued that "salvation has always been considered a 'social' reality."
The tradition of hope, he says, asserts both the obligation and the ability of "every generation" to engage "anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs" and to discover "the proper use of human freedom." Seen this way, hope is a promise but also a challenge. It does not guarantee success in human affairs. It only insists that success is possible.
If the long march of Exodus and the resurrection on Easter preach hope on a grand scale, the Christmas story is a far quieter tale that "usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants," as the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar N.T. Wright has noted.
But there is the religious interest in the incarnation and the natural interest in birth. "The kingdom of peace comes through a child," writes the German theologian JÂ¿rgen Moltmann, "and liberation is bestowed on the people who become as children: disarmingly defenseless, disarming through their defenselessness, and making others defenseless because they themselves are so disarming."
A naive view, perhaps, but surprisingly realistic, since the best defense often requires us to drop our own defensiveness. This act of trust is made possible by hope, which in turn is the precondition for reform, renewal and redemption. Without hope, none of it is even worth trying.