It is a cliché to talk about hope at Christmas, but a couple of weeks ago during Advent, I heard an excellent sermon on the subject and so I thought I’d write our Christmas post about hope, however hackneyed or overdone it gets at this time. For the Christian, it is important to remember that hope is considered one of the supernatural or theological virtues (along with faith and love) contrasted with the natural virtues known by reason and available to all through hard work and habituation (justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, etc.) Only through God’s grace can we experience true hope. When we begin to order our lives toward heaven and the things of heaven as our ultimate good (as Father, now Bishop Barron, who I was listening to put it, “we begin to gaze our soul toward the transcendent realm”) we start to experience the idea of Christian hope.
The reading for the third week of Advent (when I was listening to the sermon) was the lyrical and beautiful poem from Isaiah 35:
The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
While a literal reading suggests the Israelites returning to their Holy Land, we know that the poem is better understood as a foreshadowing of Christ’s coming and His promise to restore us by healing us of our sins – only then can we enter Zion (i.e. Heaven) singing, and with everlasting joy. Why? Because it is there that death will finally be conquered and “sorrow and mourning will flee.”
Interestingly, especially this crazy political year, Bishop Barron contrasts the virtue of hope with the secular idea of optimism. He warns us that all of the dangerous political leaders of the 20th Century were ultimately optimists who believed that man could be shaped to bend (and break) to do their will (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc.) He suggests that the real Christian attitude toward this world should ultimately be pessimistic as the Christian knows that we can’t conquer death or any of the world’s problems – at least not without the Lord’s help. (Here Barron references the philosopher Schopenhauer’s metaphor for life – we are a boat on a river with rapids, getting knocked about from rock to rock trying to stay afloat only to eventually succumb at the end of our journey to the waterfall that awaits us all.) Bishop Barron even quotes Bob Dylan on life, suggesting that Dylan understood the Christian idea of hope and provided an answer to the pessimistic philosopher: “And there’s no exit in any direction / ’Cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes.”
Barron also answers critics who suggest that this focus on heaven sets men up for a spiritual dualism, forever consigned to wallow in misery here in Earth as they suffer injustice only to look forward to their deaths to a glorious afterlife. Not so says the good Bishop – remember that heaven is a place of goodness, so when we look to heaven we are reminded of all of the transcendent goods related to God. Those who are given the grace of hope are given a focus on God – this is in contrast to the worldly optimist without Christian hope who is restless to make the world better here and now (and right now, or you will be thrown in jail, or worse, for not obeying my worldly, secular vision for what I demand of you to make the world better!) Instead the Christian is encouraged to cultivate patience, for we know that God has a ‘higher’ purpose and plan for us:
Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
James letter has an ironic double meaning during Advent – we all get excited at this time to celebrate the birth of Jesus which is an historical event that has already occurred and yet we also must be patient awaiting both our reunion with Christ in heaven and His triumphant return to Earth.
Pope Francis’ recent ongoing catechesis on Christian hope echoes many of these same ideas:
“When we speak of hope, we often refer to that which man is not able to do and that which is not visible. In effect, what we hope for goes beyond our strength and gaze,” the Pope said Dec. 21.
However, the birth of Christ “speaks of a different hope, a trustworthy, visible and understandable hope, because it is founded on God.”
In becoming man, Jesus enters the world and gives humanity the strength to walk with him and to live the present moment “in a new way,” even if it’s sometimes tiring, he said.
For a Christian, then, hope means the certainty “of being on a journey with Christ toward the Father who awaits us,” Francis said, adding that this hope “offers a goal, a good destiny in the present, the salvation of humanity, the beatitude of those who entrust themselves to the merciful God.”
“Hope never stops; it’s always on a journey, and it makes us walk forward,” he added.
So this Christmas season be patient and full of hope – we place our trust not in worldly kings or leaders but in the King of Kings who will make the desert bloom and restore sight to blind, sound to the deaf, and speech to the mute. Jesus of Nazareth is born on Christmas and this event gives us all great hope!
God bless all our readers and their families – Merry Christmas from all of us here at What’s Wrong with the World.