“O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph brought him to Jerusalem where they encountered a man named Simeon. The Holy Spirit had promised Simeon that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. When he saw Jesus in the temple, he rejoiced and said, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.” The importance of waiting and preparation is a theme that extends back to before the Passover in Egypt. Abraham and Sarah had to wait for many years before God fulfilled his promise of a child to them. And Simeon, along with many of the Israelites, had been waiting for many generations for the coming of the Messiah.
During finals week last semester I took a walk late one night and thought about the ongoing season of Advent. Advent is the time in the Christian tradition which is spent in preparation for the coming of Christ. The preparation is supposed to strengthen our understanding of and hope for the coming of Christ, just like the hope that Simeon had. The hymns of the season have a somber, expectant feel to them. As I reflected, I played one of my favorite Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, on my phone. I was walking out by Hayden Park, and the words, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel…” rang out across the cold, empty park. This song claims that rejoicing is not reserved for when Christ comes, but is rather something which we are called do in expectation of his coming. While the fulfilled promises of God still seem far off, we are told to rejoice nonetheless. Rejoicing in expectation is a strange thing to be told to do and something that I had never really thought of before that night. This call to joy is a part of what distinguishes us as a Christian culture, beginning with the first Christmas, and it becomes part of a dynamic, active process that is wholly focused in the immediate present. In John Paul II’s address, Angelus, he speaks on this joy, saying,
“We do not pretend that life is all beauty. We are aware of darkness and sin, of poverty and pain. But we know Jesus has conquered sin and passed through his own pain to the glory of the Resurrection. And we live in the light of his Paschal Mystery – the mystery of his Death and Resurrection. “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song! We are not looking for a shallow joy but rather a joy that comes from faith, that grows through unselfish love, that respects the “fundamental duty of love of neighbour, without which it would be unbecoming to speak of Joy”. We realize that joy is demanding; it demands unselfishness; it demands a readiness to say with Mary: “Be it done unto me according to thy word”.”
This is by no means an easy calling. While I am sure that most people know this is what they are supposed to do, often it can seem impractical or even vague and unrealistic. For instance, what does this have to do with life at Hillsdale? How do we walk around campus with this in our minds?
When I began this first semester of my freshman year at Hillsdale, I was one of about three-hundred freshmen standing outside at convocation listening to our president tell us, as he tells every class, “Put your boots on.” I turned and hugged my parents, and they left soon after. Over the next several days, I went to and fro with the other wide-eyed freshmen listening to older students and professors describe what our first semester would entail. Our provost gave a speech in which he explained to us the College’s motto, “Virtus Tentamine Gaudet,” or Strength Rejoices in the Challenge. He explained to us what would become evident once classes began– that studying at Hillsdale is hard. He emphasized that by taking these challenges into our own hands, we would grow stronger and see the benefits in ourselves as the year continued. After convocation, I felt encouraged and inspired by this motto. Not unlike the knights of Arthur’s round table, myself and these other men and women had decided to band together to do something fantastic. We had a code to live by, which at its heart was set on defending liberty and pursuing truth. What better thing could a man ask for?
Our motto provides a unique opportunity to unite our pursuit of excellence at Hillsdale with the long standing Christian calling to be a joyful people. I think it is generally accepted among the student body that Hillsdale is not just tough, but one of the toughest schools in the nation. Our honor code says, “A soul enjoys liberty when it is ordered–when its passions are ruled by reason, and its habit is virtue.” Our classes and education reflect that sentiment in a rigorous way. I am aware that this is repeated almost to the point of cliché, but our core curriculum is both large and challenging because it is hard to order your soul. It is a way of life, and such is the way of a college student at Hillsdale. We hear again and again that, given the task we have in front of us, our motto is a perfect one. “Strength rejoices in the Challenge.” Our classes are indeed incredibly challenging, and we know that, because we embrace that challenge, we are becoming better, happier, and freer individuals. But think about these statements we hear so often under a slightly different light. Consider how closely this ties in with our calling as Christians. It is an important distinction that our motto does not say, “strength rejoices after the challenge” but the emphasis falls on rejoicing in the challenge. While we are keenly aware of the rigorous nature of our classes and our curriculum, we are called to rejoice throughout every part of the process just as we are called to rejoice in the glory of Christ’s birth and resurrection. The reality in which we live is a victorious one. Christ rose from the dead. And we cannot escape the fact that our college experience is a part of that same reality. So our classes both reflect and take part in that same victory and we are called to deliberately live and learn with an attitude of resurrected joy.
However, there is a method to approaching the college experience that can create a misconception of our motto and even how to approach college itself. Consider the following example. It is the first Monday after Thanksgiving. Break was great. It was restful and a nice time home with the family. But it was, as you know, a quick intake of breath before the craziness of hell week and finals week. And everyone seems to have that one class in which they are not sure how the grade is going to work out. So the next few weeks begin to seem vitally important. As the week progresses faster than anyone anticipated, the realization sets in as to just how much there is to do. The conversations at lunch often have short dialogues such as:
“How many papers do you have due next week?”
“Three, and I have a quiz on Friday that’s going to be really bad.”
“Oh, that’s tough.”
“Yeah, I just have to get through it. I’m going to be so happy when this week is done.”
“Yeah, me too…”
This seems like a familiar part of the conversation leading up to the craziness at the end of the semester. And this seems like a normal part of the Hillsdale life that is in line with our motto. Of course there is a challenge, and we all know that we will be better for it on the back end. But it can be easy to forget about that other crucial part of our motto: to rejoice. This understanding at Hillsdale falls right in with the joy of our Christian tradition. We are called to be a joyful people as it says in the psalms, “This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118)
But the real difficulty with this psalm and our motto is that, speaking quite realistically, challenges are hard. Think of Job, who after going through brutal events said,“Let the day be lost on which I was born, and the night which said, ‘A boy is born.’” (Job 3:3) It is daunting and often exhausting to hear repeatedly that Hillsdale wants us to rejoice in our challenges when the much of the world around us says hunker down and endure. It is a habit that most of the world embraces, one which constantly looks to the future for profitable results, asking all the typical questions: How can I use this major? What will my GPA be? How am I going to pay for this? Will this look good on my resume? What does the professor want? These are all normal habitual questions around just about any college campus and are asked for good reasons. But how do we as college students and Christians bring ourselves to rejoice when we cannot see anything useful in the near future? And what is the use of our joy if the rest of the world looks to the future for plain results?
Again, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” describes this tension between the challenges which we face and the apparent lack of results that we naturally look for as humans.
“O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Christ has already risen from the dead and has conquered the grave, and as Pope John Paul II says, we live in the light of that resurrection. And in that light we wait in expectation for the day when things will finally be made well. As it says in the Nicene Creed, “We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come.” Yet still the song commands us to rejoice. And this is because the present moment is what unites our deep Christian hope with the mundane and difficult experiences that we face each day. 1 John 3 says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.” Jesus as well said that, “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” This is a down to earth claim. The times and places right in front of us are the ones that we deal with every day. We are creatures that live in the present, and that is where our rejoicing is. So rejoicing in light of the birth, life and resurrection of Christ demands a kind of excellence in the present moment that affects how we exist even in the classroom. The resurrection of Christ shattered any uncertainty that we might have had about the future. We now know that the battle has been won and, as T.S Eliot says, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Thus we no longer have to worry about our future; we have been provided time to follow the command Jesus left his Apostles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Holy Spirit did indeed come to the Apostles and the great project of building the Kingdom of God began.
So here at Hillsdale we have been given a great opportunity to continue the project of building the Kingdom of God. We have a large core curriculum which is on its own hard to get through. But we are given these subjects because they are important to building the Kingdom of God. Both Great Books and Physical Wellness are part of this present reality of resurrected life that we have. And we can rejoice in these classes because we live in that reality. Christ has come so we rejoice both now and forever by learning and building.
So here is a small challenge. We are still human, and it is still natural for us to look to the future in anxiety. But for as long as you can, be it a week at a time or a day, allow yourself to be sucked in and tossed about by the classes you have. Tolkien would say, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Be moved by what you are learning and respond to it in the moment. Use your intuition and not your five-year plan. But most of all, be joyful while doing it because that is what our resurrected lives allow us to do. Virtus Tentamine Gaudet! The joy we experience here is part of what makes us Christian and is a vital part to the building of the Kingdom of God. I will close with the beginning of a poem by William Wordsworth titled “Surprised by Joy”:
“Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?…”
Dietrich is a Freshman planning to study English and Mathematics.