Second Sunday of Advent. Fr Robert Verrill invites us to embrace true hope, not blind optimism.
If you’re a natural optimist, then by definition, you’ll obviously think that there’s a lot going for you. And there’s some statistics to back you up. An optimistic man will tend to live 11% longer than someone who lacks this disposition, and for optimistic women the advantage is even greater: they can expect to live 15% longer than their less optimistic counterparts. There is also evidence that if you assume you’re going to really enjoy a good holiday or a meal, then you’re more likely to have a pleasurable experience than someone who doesn’t expect the holiday or meal to be anything worth writing home about. But as the recent collapse of a multibillion-dollar cryptocurrency business suggests, misplaced optimism can sometimes have disastrous consequences.
Jenni Russell’s article in the Times on the demise of the FTX empire points out that misplaced optimism is very common. Brain research shows that some regions of our brains tend to become less active when presented with negative information so that we are less able to process it. And faced with a complex situation with details we can’t quite grasp, we tend to put a positive spin on the situation and assume that there is going to be a positive overall outcome. Hence the many FTX investors who are now having to come to terms with losing vast sums of money.
Now given our natural aversion to negative information, we may find it rather difficult to process today’s Gospel. For in today’s Gospel, St John the Baptist says some very negative things. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers, he tells them not to presume to tell themselves “we have Abraham for our father”. And he tells them that the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, and that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. So repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.
Given our natural difficulty in processing negative information, we may tend to gloss over this negativity in the Gospel and criticize anyone highlighting it as a doom- and gloom-monger. For although there are some bad people in the world, surely John the Baptist wouldn’t say to me that I belonged to a brood of vipers. Surely I’ve produced lots of good fruit; surely he would congratulate me on all the repentance I’ve already done in my life so far. So surely I can carry on as I am, confident that I will be counted among those whom God will gather into His barn rather than those He will throw into the fire that never goes out. Now I hope I’m right, but if our hope is not to be misplaced, it can’t be grounded in some thoughtless optimistic outlook. Rather it can only be grounded in the fact that we have a saviour, Jesus Christ.
That we have a saviour in Jesus Christ is indeed Good News – it is at the heart of the Gospel. But if we are not to be indifferent to what Christ has done for us, then we also need to recognise the bad news – that it is possible for a loving God to condemn someone to everlasting punishment. Traditionally this possibility has been explained in terms of God’s antecedent will and His consequent will. Under the aspect of His antecedent will, God desires the salvation of every single person, and so offers them all the grace they need to be saved. But at the same time, because of God’s profound gift of human freedom, God respects all the decisions of His creatures in their acceptance or rejection of saving grace. Thus, although God’s antecedent will is that all people be saved, His consequent will is that we be allowed our choice to accept or reject saving grace. So we can only be saved because of the grace of God; and we can only be damned by our persistent and final refusal of grace. Thus, God is responsible for the salvation of all that are saved. He destines no one to end up in hell, so if we suffer damnation, then we will only have ourselves to blame.
So during this Advent season, we need to hear the voice of St John the Baptist, the voice that cries in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord. For if we can recognise how much we are in need of a redeemer, then far from having a misplaced optimism, our heart’s will be open to a genuine hope, a hope that is grounded in Jesus Christ, a saviour who so desires our redemption that He suffered and died for us on the cross.