Women praying and singing hymns in church.
By Amar D. Peterman

“Every spiritual journey is a pilgrimage, an exercise in anticipation and hope.” — Image Journal, “Every Breath a Birth”

The closing months of the year often come with mixed emotions. Although this season is typically marketed as joyful and filled with cheer, gratitude, and connection, our lived reality likely resembles something different. In an ongoing social moment marked by division, hostility, violence, and tension, this season more accurately looks like fumbling through conversations about global conflict, national politics, immigration, worker strikes, and the like with distant relatives and old friends who stop by once a year. 

To be sure, these conversations aren’t isolated in the holiday season. However, there is a perverse, hope-crushing irony found in arguing over these weighty topics while Nat King Cole or The Muppet Christmas Carol plays in the background. If we can’t find community, healing, joy, or hope in this season that is supposed to bring about these very things, how can this ever be found?

For many Christians, the month of December revolves around the season of Advent, which culminates in the celebration of Christmas. The four weeks of advent are, quite literally, the anticipation and expectation of hope. It is a month of praying, dreaming, and longing for the arrival of Christ, the hope and bedrock of our tradition. It is the rekindling of an enchanted faith as we remember the prophetic, mothering womb of God.

These final months of the year are also filled with celebrations of hope across many other faith traditions. As an Indian American, I think immediately of Diwali: the Festival of Lights. While there is no single “Diwali” story, there is a common theme that unites this festival: the triumph of divine light over darkness. As a follower of Jesus, I can wholeheartedly join in the Diwali celebrations with my Hindu, Sikh, and Jain neighbors, looking to the lit diya in shared hope for a better world.

I think, too, of my Jewish colleagues and friends who celebrate Hanukkah (Chanukah), which commemorates the victory of the Jewish people over the Greek Seleucid empire in the second century BCE and the Maccabean revolt. While its reception is complicated today, Hanukkah offers another festival of lights marked by the hopeful candles of the Menorah. It is a celebration of giving, storytelling, and remembering.

These celebrations remind me of a brilliant conversation between Miroslav Volf and Matt Croasmun. In it, Croasmun asks, “What is a realistic hopefulness? What does ‘the world as it should be’ feel, taste, smell like?” In this season, I am reminded that hope looks a lot like the anticipation of God’s redemptive action; it feels like a compassionate touch of comfort; it tastes like a meal shared with friends and strangers alike; it smells like a coffee shop filled with people from all walks of life sharing a conversation; and it sounds like the collective voices of people across faith traditions joining together to speak words of affirmation, joy, and life to one another. 

The question we might uplift in response is How can we hold on to a realistic hopefulness? I think a great starting point are these celebrations of hope and justice that are drawn out of our faith traditions. These liturgies and traditions do not negate the despair of an unjust world, but they do offer us the stories and lessons to cultivate a powerful and catalyzing hope. This work is not linear or stoic, but rather a winding, messy path of learning to engage with those around us as “neighbor,” and “colleague,” and perhaps even “friend” and “co-laborer.” But each time we are able to find compassion and (un)common ground, hope for a better world grows stronger.

To learn more about realistic hope, I recommend the links below.

  • Every Breath a Birth (Meditations for Advent & Christmastide), in Image Journal.
  • (Un)Common Life: Secularity, Religiosity, and the Tension Between Faith and Culture, a podcast with Luke Bretherton and Miroslav Wolf.

Amar D. Peterman (MDiv, Princeton Seminary) is an author and theologian working at the intersection of faith and public life. He is the founder of Scholarship for Religion and Society LLC, a research and consulting firm working with some of the leading philanthropic and civic institutions, religious organizations, and faith leaders in America today. His first book, This Common Life: Seeking the Common Good Through Love of Neighbor is forthcoming with Eerdmans Publishing Company. You can learn more about him at amarpeterman.com