We "hope" for all kinds of things, from the trivial to the profound.

Even more than faith and love, I think, hope is closest to the heart of the Christmas story. In an anthropological sense, Christmas celebrates new life and birth, a theme that crosses cultures and traditions. This sense of Christmas has a beauty all its own and embodies a nearly universal quest for renewal.

Thus were authoritarian conceptions swept away in favor of a loving God sympathetic to creation and empathetic toward human suffering. Think about the line from John's Gospel: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him." John was not some 1960s hippie. He was offering something very new and important, a trustworthy God who inspired hope.

But it's quite clear that the Christmas, Easter and Exodus stories are about freedom and liberation. All promise that the distance between God and humanity can be overcome, that deliverance is possible.

Exodus and Revolution

That's why I dissent from Christopher Hitchens' bold assertion in the subtitle of his bracing atheist polemic that "religion poisons everything."

On the contrary, for all of the sins committed in the name of religion--yes, there are many--the great faiths were indispensable in pointing us down a path toward liberty and justice. If I may borrow from Jesse Jackson, these traditions helped us, in dark times, to keep hope alive.

The Christian message is frequently drained of this larger meaning and interpreted, often by Christians themselves, as being solely or primarily about personal salvation. But this sells the tradition short.

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a fascinating encyclical on the idea of Christian hope in which he explicitly disputed the idea of "the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others." Drawing on the theologian Henri de Lubac, Benedict argued that "salvation has always been considered a 'social' reality."

The tradition of hope, he says, asserts both the obligation and the ability of "every generation" to engage "anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs" and to discover "the proper use of human freedom." Seen this way, hope is a promise but also a challenge. It does not guarantee success in human affairs. It only insists that success is possible.

If the long march of Exodus and the resurrection on Easter preach hope on a grand scale, the Christmas story is a far quieter tale that "usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants," as the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar N.T. Wright has noted.

A naive view, perhaps, but surprisingly realistic since the best defense often requires us to drop our own defensiveness. This act of trust is made possible by hope, which in turn is the precondition for reform, renewal and redemption. Without hope, none of it is even worth trying.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.