During the season of Lent, we’re reminded of our humanness. From dust we were made, and to dust we will return. We attend church services marked by ash, read devotionals to focus our minds, and abstain from sugar, caffeine, or the internet to redirect appetites. The forty days serves a solemn reminder. This year, the season feels particularly weighty. The stark reality of cancer, deeply fractured relationships, and untimely deaths have seeped deep into the Lenten liturgy of our community.
We begin most mornings with a family devotional, which is followed by the current read-aloud. Today, after naming and praying for a number of folks who are walking through incredibly painful situations, I was given pause. Although brief, it was a “Why does any of it matter anyway?” moment. I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the small cheerful book covered in red and gold cloth. To transition from our world filled with pain to one marked by myths and fairy tales felt foolish. The moment passed. The show must go on. There are tasks to be completed and boxes to be checked.
Half-heartedly, I opened the book and began reading where we’d left off. The world had been a paradise full of beautiful children. There was no sickness, nor aging, nor despair. Yet Pandora couldn’t be content with perfection. Her companion, Epimetheus, was no help. The ornate box in their possession, full of mystery and promise, drew Pandora closer. With a slight touch of her hand, the golden knot at the enclosure was untangled. The box flew open. The grave deed of all deeds had been done. For the first time in history, the world knew evil passions and diseases and sorrows of all kinds. Again, I was given pause. This make-believe world was a mirror of our own. It was tarnished. Soiled. Full of despair.
But despair wasn’t the ending. It was the beginning.
Epimetheus sat down sullenly in a corner with his back towards Pandora; while Pandora flung herself upon the floor and rested her head on the fatal abominable box. She was crying bitterly, and sobbing as if her heart would break. Suddenly there was a gentle tap on the inside of the lid.
Hope had been born from the place of deep darkness.
“As long as you need me,” said Hope, with her pleasant smile, – “and that will be as long as you live in the world, – I promise never to desert you. There may come times and seasons, now and then, when you will think that I have utterly vanished. But again, and again, and again, when perhaps you last dream of it, you shall see the glimmer of my wings on the ceiling of your cottage. Yes, my dear children, I know something very good and beautiful that is to be given you hereafter… Trust in my promise, for it is true.”
And so they did; and not only they, but so has everybody trusted Hope, that has since been alive. And to tell you the truth, I cannot help being glad – (though to be sure, it was an uncommonly naughty thing for her to do) – but I cannot help being glad that our foolish Pandora peeped into the box. No doubt – not doubt – the Troubles are still flying about the world, and have increased in multitude, rather than lessened, and are a very ugly set of imps, and carry most venomous stings in their tails. I have felt them already, and expect to feel them more, as I grow older. But then that lovely and lightsome little figure of Hope! What in the world could we do without her? Hope spiritualises the earth; Hope makes it always new; and, even in the earth’s best and brightest aspect, Hope shows it to be only the shadow of an infinite bliss hereafter! —Nathaniel Hawthorne (A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys)
Perhaps the days we feel least like reading stories of knights and dragons, of giant wooden horses and sea serpents, and of mythical gilded boxes filled with the problems of the world – are the very days that we need to catch a glimpse of the shadow of Hope. In the beginning, Hope spoke while hovering over darkness. In the end, it will sound like rushing waters and blaring trumpets. But while we’re waiting, Hope’s whisper can be heard in the most unexpected of places – like the funerals of saints and the flutter of fairy wings.
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Illustration by Arthur Rackman, from A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys by Nathaniel Hawthorne