Our Empty Hope Chest
This blog is a part of our Advent series on the hope we find in, through and given by Christ. Each week’s installment will look at hope from a different perspective with special emphasis on corresponding passages of Scripture.
"There are some doors that should never be opened," the trailer intoned. My eleven-year-old self was hooked, eyes glued to the screen as I watched the sneak peek for the next video game in one of my favorite series. I counted down the days until the latest Nancy Drew computer game, "The Curse of Blackmoor Manor," would be released. It looked mysterious, dark, and more than a little creepy, and it promised hours of gameplay in an eerie old manor where nothing was as it seemed.
As the game progresses, players are introduced to a girl named Jane Penvellyn who is quite the gamer herself—though Jane loves board games, not electronic ones. In your first interaction with her, she repeatedly asks you if you'd like to play a game. When you finally agree (and gameplay will not continue unless you do), Jane is elated. "Look inside the chest over there and pick a game," she tells you. "My great aunt said it's a hope chest so I put my games in there in the hope someone would come over to play."
Eleven-year-old me had read enough historical fiction to recognize the malapropism. What I didn’t realize was how this echoed a deeper human flaw that is dreadfully present in real life, too.
Historically, a hope chest was a large box, typically wooden and beautifully carved, that contained items to prepare a young woman for marriage. Her best needlework, most exquisitely fashioned clothing, and finest china were lovingly packed inside. It was a resume of sorts for the eligible bachelorette. Her homemaking skills were carefully cultivated and preserved, ready to be paraded before a worthy suitor at a moment’s notice. Once the happy couple married, the hope chest’s purpose would be fulfilled as the woman took the tangible expressions of her dreams for the future into her new home.
Although the physical hope chest went out of style sometime after the Second World War, every human being has one. And, like Jane Penvellyn, every human gets its purpose wrong. Inside the chest of every human beats a heart of false hope.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson tells us. The problem is that there are quite a few things which sport feathers. Vultures and turtledoves, luxury airliners and fighter jets, angels and demons all lay claim to wings. Jane’s hope chest is filled with games, Louisa May Alcott’s “four little chests” are filled with girlhood dreams, and our own chests are filled to bursting with sin, pride, and regret. With so many different options, how can we distinguish a malapropos from a McCoy, equivocation from substantiation?
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” we read in Hebrews 11:1. Hope, then, implies an object—we hope for or in something. Perhaps if we try hard enough, we can create a little chest of our own good works. Surely feeding the hungry, tending the sick, and giving one hundred percent of our effort to the work of the Lord is adding a button, a flounce, or even a tiny detail of lace to the wedding gown of our salvation. Even showing self-restraint on social media in the wake of election season must add at least a seed pearl to the train or sleeve.
Or we fill our chest with our desires—health, happiness, relationships, and other temporal gifts we play every game under the sun in order to grasp. If only we could have one more piece of the puzzle, we think, then our hope would be fulfilled. Just one bit of good news from the doctor. Just one family event where everyone gets along. Just one night of unbroken rest. If we get enough small pieces together, maybe we can at least guess at how our earthly lives will turn out—and work harder to create a beautiful life well lived.
Yet the more ideas we shove into a hope chest of our own creating, the more we succeed in simply personalizing a white-washed ossuary, the inscription of which would read, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off” (Ezek. 37:11). What we perceive to be good works capable of catching the eye of a Divine Suitor are not finishing touches on a bridal gown but blood-soaked rags proclaiming our uncleanness (Is. 64:6). The temporal things we long for so ardently turn out to be passing vanities, a “striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14).
Every door that we should have never opened—to sin and every perversion our hearts could imagine—we ran through eagerly (Psalm 53:3). But the Door (John 10:7) we couldn’t open, the gate to Heaven, came down to Earth and is Himself our hope (1 Tim. 1:1).
“The hope of the godless shall perish,” a friend advises Job (Job 8:13). Yet the certainty of Job’s faith is that he, in his very flesh (Job 19:26), shall see the God who would die for him, for you, and for me. The Son of God was born to a virgin; “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in the God-Man lying in the manger. Hope has arrived. Not the thing with wings, but the One who shelters us with His wings (Psalm 61:4) and whose rising brings us healing (Mal. 4:2). The Incarnation is no case of mistaken identity but a literal event in human history, one which can be investigated and tested. Here we see True God and True Man dwelling with us so that we may dwell with Him forever.
Our hope chest is empty. Not a carved wooden box but a new tomb, never used, that was occupied by Hope Himself on Good Friday and vacant three days later. It was filled not with our accomplishments but with our failures and guilt in the One who had become sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). By His death, death itself was killed. The Bridegroom submitted to the grave in order to give us an eternal Hope—not perishable garments or earthly goods, but the heavenly treasure of life everlasting in Him. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” Paul writes, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:19-20), and because He lives, we also will live (John 14:19). The Church, the bride of Christ, awaits His coming again assured—convinced—that the Bridegroom has supplied everything we need to live with Him eternally by the life, death, and resurrection of True Hope.