Listening to the Whos

“Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!”

Whos

Advent is here. This weekend was consumed with pulling out boxes from the attic, figuring out which ornaments broke last season, checking strands of lights to make sure they are in working order, and, for my family, revisiting the Christmas books. And as with many families, prominent among that collection is Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

We all know the outlines of that story of personal redemption, but in reading it again last night, I was struck not so much by the Grinch and his journey, but by the Whos. I grew up with the Grinch, particularly the television version, and the transformation of the Grinch in the last frames always seemed to be the point of the story and it overshadowed the rest of the narrative. But this time, it struck me that the Whos, those preternaturally optimistic people, experience a catastrophe that we sometimes gloss over. And it is their response to that catastrophe that is the beating heart of the story.

Although rendered in compelling detail that draws in the reader (or the viewer), the midnight journey of the Grinch results in a deep violation in the lives of the people of Whoville. Imagine waking up on Christmas morning to the knowledge that your home had been burgled and that nothing was left. Recall that the Grinch strips those houses bare, and that, although it isn’t dwelt upon, the Whos are now destitute.

But it’s Christmas. And the Whos, living now in an undeniably troubling reality, do not succumb to it. They live into hope. When they join hands to sing in the center of town, they don’t know the ending of the story. They don’t know that up on Mount Crumpet a miracle is about to take place. They are not singing to get their stuff back. They are not singing in order to deny or to fix the crisis in which they find themselves. They are a broken people refusing to be broken.

This advent season, in particular, we need reminders that hope is one of the central Christian virtues. Although it often takes a back seat to faith and love, hope is what allows us not to be paralyzed by fear or despair. As the world around us is groaning and our recent history seems a cruel rejection of the Prince of Peace, we need to remember that God’s possibilities are greater than our possibilities. Hope allows us to reject our normal responses, to refuse to give in to the hatred, to act in ways that radically challenge the limited options in which terror and violence seem to place us.

Advent hope is that sort of active hope. It is a brave hope. When we live in expectation of the coming of a new world, we don’t know what that new world will be, or that it will fix the everyday pains and challenges, even catastrophes of our lives. Living into hope is an act of faith. We refuse to be defined by our brokenness. We refuse to define the world by its ugliness. We refuse to put up walls, to close borders, to repay evil with evil. Instead, we sing “Joy to the World! The Lord is Come!”

Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.  He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.

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