Samuel Johnson, the author of the first English dictionary, wrote this in 1749:
THAT the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time, now in our power, to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked; and as this practice is a commodious subject of raillery to the gay, and of declamation to the serious, it has been ridiculed with all the pleasantry of wit, and exaggerated with all the amplifications of rhetorick. Every instance, by which its absurdity might appear most flagrant, has been studiously collected; it has been marked with every epithet of contempt, and all the tropes and figures have been called forth against it. (The Rambler, section 2)
Johnson is correct. Humans persistently look to the future. An optimist anticipates good things; a pessimist looks for bad things to happen. Rarely will anyone other than a person who expects death in the very near future spend more time living in the past than she or he devotes to contemplating the future.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein even suggested that animals hope: “One can imagine an animal angry, frightened, unhappy, happy, startled. But hopeful? And why not?” (Philosophical Investigations II, i, 174, cited by Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, Kindle location 1120-1122)
Advent is a season of hope, a season defined by Christians waiting, watching, as we relive the days of Mary's pregnancy in our readings and liturgical observances. For children and some others, time seems to drag; the long expected birth seems an eternity away. Some harried moderns may think and feel the opposite: that the time passes too quickly, not allowing them to do everything they wish before Christmas.
The Church's liturgical calendar has always, though somewhat arbitrarily, compressed the usual nine months of pregnancy into an annual observance of only four weeks. (I've known many women who have expressed the wish that their pregnancies could have been compressed and that they would nevertheless have delivered a full-term baby!)
But, if we're honest, remembering the birth of Mary's child is really Advent's minor theme. Advent's major theme directs our attention to the future, to a hope that God is not yet done with us or the world. The celebration of Christmas that overwhelms Advent may blind us with lights, busy us with activity, deafen us with carols, and burden us with gifts and cards. Indeed, many of us prefer that to happen. The hope of Advent just seems so dim, so unlikely. More than two thousand years after Jesus' birth, Christians still wait for God, decisively and dramatically, to fulfill the promise of Christians perceive in Jesus.
And, if we're honest, the crackpot Christian fringe dominates our imagination and thinking about the future. Their ignorant reading of the Bible has shaped popular opinion, and often our opinion as well. The late twentieth century, wildly popular series of Left Behind books and movies represents one prominent example of this misguided at best and intentionally deceptive at worst rhetoric. Taking the Bible's apocalyptic literature (the books of Revelation and Daniel, passages in the synoptic gospels that speak of the end of the world) as a straightforward outline of what God intends for the future is as silly and pointless as is searching the Bible for answers to scientific questions.
What can Christians – realistically and honestly – say about the future?
First, the future is unwritten, i.e., the future is unknown by us and by God. We live in an ambiguous world with an uncertain future.
Second, God has a depth and breadth of perspective that humans lack. God created the cosmos and God is not a God of lost causes. In other words, we have just cause to hope for a better, more promising future in which life will abound.
Third, in looking back to the birth of Jesus, an event in and through which generations of Christians have experienced the wondrous transcendent mystery of God's love, we hope to join their ranks, to experience, like them that mysterious power we call God. At Christmas, when so many people are a little nicer, a little more joyous, a little more generous, we experience an in breaking of that power and God transforms the world, along with many of us, at least temporarily, into a closer of approximation of the future that God intends.