As we prepare to celebrate the wonder of Christmas once again, we often are flooded with glowing memories of Christmases past. Impatiently waiting as a child for Santa to bring us toys. Sitting down with family and friends for a joyous meal. Going to Midnight Mass, smelling the incense and hearing the bells. Decorating the house and stringing up outside lights. Feeling the joy and beauty of the season. Realizing the nearness of God!
One of my earliest memories is waking up from a nap at the age of three, coming out into the living room and looking with absolute wonder and amazement at the Christmas tree, radiant with lights and ornaments. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my short life! Another Yule-tide memory was at my first priestly assignment, St. Anthony Parish in Menomonee Falls, a classic country church which had had a suburb grow up around it. My first Midnight Mass, both as a priest and at that parish, was packed with people standing up the side aisles. The choir offered a beautiful concert at 11:30, and then, with all the lights off, everyone held lit candles and sang “Silent Night.” We all have glowing Christmas memories that linger in our hearts as signs of God’s great love for us.
During this Advent season, I have meditated often on the power of hope. “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit … (Hope) keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1817-1818). Because of Christmas and all the spiritual gifts, which the Lord has entrusted to us in Christ, we dare to hope that we will live forever with God, know forgiveness and love, and rejoice even now in our identity as beloved children of the Father.
Hope is different from optimism. The latter is a vague, naïve expectation that things will somehow get better, we know not how. Tragedy, suffering and death crush optimism, making it seem foolish and false. Hope is made of sterner stuff. Hope can look the darkest nights of evil fully in the face and still rejoice, because it knows that God has already gained the victory, that Christ has entered the world as savior, that, if we are faithful to the Lord, we will overcome every obstacle and come into the kingdom of heaven forever, and that there is no sin or death which has the final word on us. Hope relies on the promises and power of Jesus Christ. As the saying goes, “I do not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”
These past years have been difficult ones. I do not need to recite the litany of woes which afflict us; we have all lived through them. In the midst of pain and challenge, we can all lose hope, focus, perspective and even faith. We can give in to sadness and despair, and even give up on the Lord, thinking that we are abandoned and alone. How important it is for us to retell the ancient story of Christmas in order to recharge our hope and faith. Mary giving birth to Jesus in a humble stable. Angels appearing to shepherds at night, bathed in heavenly radiance. The Christmas star guiding mysterious astrologers to the Child. The Son of God stepping into the pages of human history, born on the fringes of the Roman Empire, quietly and humbly coming into His own creation, unnoticed by the important personages of the world, yet ready to redeem and save this world forever.
The hope of Christmas rekindles our wonder and astonishment in a world grown old and jaded by broken promises, sinful failure and empty selfishness. Can we look at God, the Church, our families and friends, our work and responsibilities, our home and possessions, and even ourselves with new eyes and grateful hearts, renewed by the glory of God shining on the face of Christ? Hope enables us to do so!
My profound prayer for every member of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, is that this holy season of Christmas may renew us in faith, hope and love, filling our hearts with a deeper desire for God, and that the peace which flows from the Christ Child will give us strength in every difficulty and challenge. In Christ, God has promised to be with us until the end of time, and so we rejoice in hope!
“A God who became so small could only be mercy and love.” – St. Therese of Lisieux
Bishop Donald J. Hying
SVdP National Episcopal Advisor
Thank you, Bishop Harding, for your comforting and encouraging words.