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Jupiter, Saturn, and a Sky Full of Hope

Like so many people around the globe, I stood outside last week staring at the night sky, hoping for a glimpse of the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (a.k.a., the "Christmas Star"). I had dragged my family to the nearest park with me, answering the burning questions of "WHY do we have to do this?" and "Can't we finish our game first?" with a peppy, "Because it's a rare planetary moment in history! We'll be among the first people in 800 years to see it!" and "We're going to have some outdoor fun. You've been playing that game all afternoon. Let's play a new game called 'Let's pretend to be the Magi, following the Christmas Star to Bethlehem!' But instead of Bethlehem, it's the park!" (Yes, they gave me the same eye roll and head shake that you likely also just did.)

We had missed it the night before on the actual convergence (December 21) when our sky was completely overcast, but we had a small window to see it the next night and I was determined that we were not going to miss that window to see it. And see it we did! Right after sunset, it was hard to miss. Well, I take that back. Most of our viewing party thought it was an airplane until one of us pointed out that it wasn't moving. As the clouds started the roll in, the rest of my family walked back home, but I lingered. As a few more neighbors meandered to the same park, looking for the same celestial event, I thought about how universal the experience of stargazing is — or has been — in human history. And, perhaps equally universal is wishing — putting one's hopes — on a star. (I mean, it's been the defining song of one particular major corporation since it premiered to children around the world eighty years ago, as sung by an unusually morally-aware cricket.)

If there was ever a year that needed hope, it's this one. As hopeful as we all started out in 2020, many of us are facing our own "dark nights of the soul," as my priest put it recently. Just about everyone I know is reevaluating. "What's my purpose? Is this all there is? What am I meant to contribute?" And some of us are struggling with more immediate desperation. "How am I going to feed my family? How can I keep my business going? How am I going to pay the rent? What's going to happen to us?"

A pandemic has brought our country to its knees. Hospitals are full. Schools are closed. Reports of previously perfectly healthy people dying with almost no warning dominate our news and fear seeps into our consciousness. Neighbors guard themselves against neighbors, and medical guidelines keep changing so rapidly that it's hard to find the right path. Politicians can't agree on anything and no one knows whom to trust. It is indeed a dark time.

At this point, most of us have been through different levels of fear surrounding this process. When we first entered lockdown in March, it was "just two weeks," which would buy our hospitals enough time to ensure enough beds for everyone. It would give our doctors and scientists time to find treatments that might work against this unknown enemy. Flatten the curve. For those of you who watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it was our own version of her line, "I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you’ve got to do is take it 10 seconds at a time." For us, it was two weeks instead of ten seconds. We can do anything for two weeks!

Those two weeks turned into four and then into another four and, here we are, nine months later, with a landscape that looks largely the same. A dear friend who is an ICU nurse at a major hospital in Tennessee told me that they're now lining up bodies in the basement hallways because the morgue is overflowing and there simply aren't enough refrigerated trucks or space. She can't get through rounds without intubating one to two people and she's spending roughly six hours on the phone every day with families across the country telling them that their loved ones are likely not going to survive. It's like the news coming out of Italy and New York all over again.

And what of those families? Unable to be with their sick loved one. Waiting for the phone to ring. Hoping against hope that it won't.

The rest of us, lucky to not find ourselves in the position of those families, are also dealing with an entirely different set of anxieties. Families are strained with the additional demands of homeschooling. Some parents are watching helplessly as their kids struggle through depression at the cancellation of activities and fall further into isolation without having social outlets to see their friends. Those parents are grasping for anything that will help get things back to normal, which can so easily turn to anger at the inability to control the situation, lashing out at government, other parents, or each other. Others are trying to cobble together childcare because their jobs as essential workers mean that working from home isn't a reality. Still others have seen their income dry up completely, and any parent can tell you that $600 over nine months isn't nearly enough when you start talking about the help you really need. What about the children who rely on school lunches as their only source of food? What about those trapped in abusive homes with no one to look out for them? Or what about those who have gone for nine months with no human contact, no human touch, completely isolated? Humans are social creatures. We're not designed to function that way.

Yes, if we ever needed hope, it's now.

I've been thinking a lot about hope lately. Going back to Greek/Roman mythology, when Pandora opened the legendary box and sickness and death and all sorts of unnamed evils went spilling into the world, what was left behind to comfort humankind? Hope. This year has felt like our hopes have been stripped from us, one by one. Weddings, graduations, rites of passage in childhood, even the hope of gathering together as a community to mourn — everything has been cancelled.

But you can't cancel hope.

Many people have noted that it's not a coincidence that so many major religions have a holiday that has to do with light around this time of year. We need that light in the darkness so badly. When you look up the definition of hope, you get a lot of answers, but an ancient one is trust. Sit with that for a minute. To hope is to trust. It is to believe that something better will come.

Two weeks ago, a cousin who is a nurse in Alabama posted a photo of herself getting the Covid vaccine with the phrase from "O Holy Night," "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices." When I went to sing through that song the next day, I couldn't get through that line. It hit me so deeply, straight to the heart.

This is not a post about vaccination; I'm not here to have that debate. What I am here for is the hope that it's bringing to millions of people. When my daughter heard that the first people had received vaccines, she flew out of her seat like someone had hit the eject button on a jet fighter. Jumping up and down, her fists in the air, she screamed, "This is a miracle! It's what we've been praying for for months!"

That's hope. That's what it gives you. It puts you on the edge of your chair, spring-loading you to jump into the air. In the oft-quoted thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, the last line is "And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love." We talk a lot about love and faith (justifiably). Hope sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. But it is hope that buoys us. It is hope that keeps us moving forward. Love may guide us through the day and faith might allow us to sleep at night, but hope gets us out of the bed.

So, here we are on the precipice of a new year. The turning of the calendar page from one year to the next is always a hopeful time. We expect that this next year will be the best one yet, when all of our hopes come to fruition. This year feels different though. We're starting it in a dark time, with only hope, faith, and love to guide us forward, one day at a time. It is now, more than ever before, essential to cling to that hope, that faith, that love.

Happy new year to my fellow stargazers, to everyone who's ever wished upon a star. May this next year meet you, on this night with stars so brightly shining, with a thrill of hope that the weary world may rejoice indeed.


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