The USS-S4 prior to her sinking.

U.S. Navy Photo, U.S. Naval Institute Collections.

The relationship of hope and fear

December 12, 2023

On December 17, 1927, U.S. Navy submarine USS S-4 was accidentally struck by Coast Guard destroyer Paulding off the coast of Massachusetts. Amidst the absence of electricity and a rapidly depleting oxygen supply, a critical rescue operation was set into motion.

Responding to the crisis, the U.S. Navy dispatched a ship equipped with skilled divers to the surface directly above the imperiled submarine. With great risk, a Navy diver descended from the ship into the treacherous depths, initiating a final endeavor to liberate the trapped sailors from their metallic confinement.

Yet, as the attempted rescue unfolded, an air of tension pervaded the scene, marked by uncertainty and urgency. Upon hearing the metal boots of the diver making contact with the submarine’s exterior, the trapped sailors, shrouded in darkness, discerned the sound and converged toward the source. Employing Morse code, they tapped on the submarine’s metal hull, posing the desperate question, “Is there any hope?”

In response, the diver, on the outside, attuned to the perilous situation, reciprocated by tapping affirmatively on the exterior of the submarine, delivering a message of reassurance, “Yes, there is hope. Everything possible is being done.”[i] Tragically, winter storms thwarted the rescue operation, and none of those aboard the S-4 survived.

During the season of Advent, which precedes Christmas, many of us find ourselves like the trapped sailors, asking “Is there any hope?”

The short days and lengthened darkness of winter, especially in Central New York, are not lost on me. We might find ourselves in a season of fear because we are uncertain about what the future holds in the face of unemployment, family conflict, health issues, or even the unexpected death of someone we love. The fear of the unknown can be debilitating.

During Advent, many churches will sing the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” with its lyric “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” We sing these words, but do we wonder why there is a relationship between hope and fear?

Fear and hope played a huge role in the birth narrative of Jesus. The birth of the Christ child in a manger to Joseph and Mary is set at the backdrop of the oppressive Roman rule and King Herod’s manic leadership. The fear of the Holy Family and other people of God was very real. However, it is in the small town of Bethlehem that God chose to reveal God’s self in the form of a newborn child. Angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth to be Good News in a world that was uncertain and fearful.

During Advent, many churches will sing the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” with its lyric “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” We sing these words, but do we wonder why there is a relationship between hope and fear?

Thomas Merton, a 20th-century Christian monk and spiritual writer, shared how his hopes and fears met together in his book, Thoughts in Solitude:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.[ii]

In the Christmas story, God addresses our fears by assuring us that Jesus came into the world to give us hope. In life, our hopes and fears meet together in faith. Hope is not about keeping a positive attitude about the future – that is optimism. Hope is the belief that no matter how uncertain or unsure the future may be, God does not leave us forsaken.

Hope is the belief God is not done with your story! May God break into your life this Advent season, as God did with Joseph, Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and the shepherds.

The Rev. Dr. Alan Rudnick, Th.D. is an author and Senior Minister at DeWitt Community Church, DeWitt, NY., He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Joseph A. Williams, Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster. (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015) p. 169.

[ii] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958) p. 79.

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