We are not divine. But we are loved.
By KATE BOWLER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: December 24, 2019
Last week, deep into the season of Advent, a toddler fell asleep in her own bed. Sometime in the night, her chest stopped rising and falling. She died in her sleep. Her frantic parents called paramedics, who rushed their daughter to the hospital, but it was too late. Olive Heiligenthal was declared dead at age 2 and transferred to the coroner’s office. A tragedy, but not a failure. At least, not yet.
Within 24 hours, this event would be the center of a national debate — not about how Olive died, but about whether Olive might live again. Her mother, Kalley, asked her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers for their help. Jesus, she explained, has conquered the grave and holds the keys to resurrection power. Would believers join her in praying that Jesus will raise this little girl from the dead?
The response was immediate. The biggest names in Christian music from around the world chimed in on social media with their support, gathering under the banner of #WakeUpOlive. Kalley Heiligenthal is not simply a mother wrecked by grief; she is a well-known Christian recording artist and a figurehead of a powerful Christian movement that holds that all things are possible. That night, Bethel Church in Redding, Calif., a giant in the Christian music industry, began to hold special worship services dedicated to Olive’s resurrection. Musicians celebrated the God of the Impossible with Olive’s name scrawled on their hands.
Christians historically understand themselves as a people of hope. But for many populist Christians, hope is an unstoppable power. They believe it can make poor people rich and sick people well. Hope, they believe, can bend reality and produce miracles.
This theology is rooted in a century of Pentecostal belief that the Kingdom of God can be seen in everyday miracles, signs and wonders that have come to include financial prosperity, physical health and, every now and again, the ability to declare that some people die “before their time.” God can restore them to life.
And so, a countdown to Olive’s resurrection began. Family, friends and scores of celebrity influencers posted reminders that each passing day was “a good day for resurrection.” By the fourth day, Olive had been in the grave longer than the Savior himself. After a week, Olive’s family and her church thanked everyone for their prayers and announced plans for a memorial service.
As a historian of these gospels of signs and wonders, I’ve known vigils like this before. A friend once had a loved one die so young that he couldn’t conceive of it. One day they’d been running down a dirt road talking about their next lacrosse game; the next his parents were choosing a coffin that would keep him in the ground. And so, my friend called in his friends to gather around the boy’s coffin before his burial and pray. They prayed all night, all day, and then the next, forgetting to eat or sleep, buoyed by a confidence that he would be resurrected.
But as the hours passed in prayer, their furious love dissolved into fury at the God who had left him cold. Didn’t Jesus bring Lazarus back from the grave? Couldn’t God do the same for a well-loved boy?
Now that this heavy supernaturalism is a staple of megachurches, televangelism and the Christian music industry, these tests of hope play out on a global stage. A desperate plea goes out into the social media universe and the faithful call back with positive declarations. But as the days wear on, the comment threads are filling with skeptics who watch this spectacle play out with confusion or concern. How do we stop this? What are the limits of hope?
For Christians, all this arrives in a delicate spiritual season. A baby is born, who is somehow God, and he will save the world. But first he will be crucified and leave us, and we will only see glimpses of any evidence that he was here at all. We are asked to live on the cutting edge of hope, mindful that we teeter between delusion and despair.
I have tremendous compassion for those who cry, “Olive, wake up!” For they have done what people of good faith often do when they skip Advent altogether. Advent is the period we celebrate while we wait for God to appear. But we often tire of the anticipation and decide to pull heaven down to earth ahead of time.
This refusal to admit to the limits of our bodies and our minds transforms hope into an illness. One born of love. We are not divine. When we confuse hope for power, we transform tragedy into failure.
Most wishes — even good wishes — will not come true. Bodies age. Love slips out of our hands. A baby girl named Olive will need a funeral. But let’s allow ourselves to long for companionship, beauty, friendship and decent parking on cold days. Let us wish that our child would come to dinner, our dad would tuck us in one last time and our grandpa would admit that the invention of polyester was a terrible mistake. Hope is the language of May it be.
This Christmas, God will be born among us, despite our best efforts. So, for those growing tired of waiting for heaven, may the season give us room to say: God is here. We are loved. It is enough.
Kate Bowler is associate professor of the history of Christianity at Duke University.