Spirituality for Today – January 2008 – Volume 12, Issue 6
What To Hope For At Christmas
Last Saturday, I assisted at the burial of three people who were victims of a terrible house fire in Bridgeport. Earlier in the week, Msgr. Aniceto Villamide, the pastor of Saint Peter's, had provided funeral Masses for several of the victims of that same fire and had spent many hours consoling the survivors.
At the end of the prayer service, the family presented me with a fruit basket as a way of saying thanks. I was deeply touched. Many others in the community who continue to reach out to this suffering family, including various parishes and Catholic Charities, were also touched by the kindness of this suffering family. In their sorrow, they responded as people of deep faith, hope, and charity. All of us should keep this wonderful family in our prayers and learn from their example.
Their example of deep enduring hope in the midst of great suffering should also make us stop and think about our own priorities as the feast of Christmas approaches. Many of us bring heavy burdens to this feast - the death of a loved one, disharmony in the family, loneliness, financial worries, and a host of other anxieties. In addition, we worry about the condition of the world we inhabit. Are we truly confident that our electoral process will identify the leadership that our nation and our world truly needs? Are we confident that we are on the path to becoming a more humane society that respects the rights and humanity of the unborn and the vulnerable, or are we sliding the other way, down the slippery slope? Are we taking the steps necessary to protect marriage and family, the pre-social, natural institution from which enlightened citizens and Catholic leadership will emerge? And are we really looking after the poor, the under-served children in our cities, and the planet which we inhabit?
In spite of our personal and global worries, a poll taken just a few days ago indicated that many Americans really are not focused on the meaning of Christmas. Their wish list does not really include "peace on earth" and "good will" within the human family. Instead, it seems, as a nation we tend to wish for "stuff " - for material comforts - ranging from designer clothes to flat screen TVs to new cars. Our own "wish list" may be much less extravagant but still headed in wrong direction. We will miss the meaning of Christmas whether the items we covet are great or small. And while coveting may be good for sagging retail sales, it really isn't where our hopes should be directed.
So, what should we hope for as Christmas draws night?
The first thing we should hope and pray for is the world's salvation. Christmas isn't just about me and my "private corner of happiness" - a wonderful phrase coined by Pope Benedict XVI. Christmas is about the world's salvation. It about the Father who loved the world so much that He sent His only Son into the world (John 3:16). It's about the living and true God who wants every person "to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). This is surely the meaning of the angel's song, the song we echo every time we sing the Gloria at Mass: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14).
The great scholar and Cardinal, Jean Danielou, once said that hope concerns "first and foremost the destiny of all humanity and then myself as part of humanity." So at Christmas we should focus on "the big picture" - on the lost and suffering humanity whom Jesus the Good Shepherd comes in search of. We should recognize that Jesus, Whose birthday we celebrate, is preeminently "the man for others."
Thus, our focus at Christmas should not be on ourselves but rather on those around us in need, on the well-being and salvation of our "neighbor," and on the world's salvation. And as we open ourselves to others, we have a whole new perspective on the personal worries and anxieties that preoccupy us. They don't loom quite as large!
The second thing we should hope and pray for at Christmas is the forgiveness of our sins. Daily I make an Act of Faith, Hope, and Charity as a way of beginning my day. Sometimes I do so simply in my own words and at other times I resort to a formula in a prayer book.
I've noticed that the Act of Hope found in most prayer books mentions the forgiveness of sins. For example, a common Act of Hope puts it this way: "O my God, relying on your infinite goodness and promises, I hope to obtain the forgiveness of my sins…" That may sound rather individualistic, especially in light of the foregoing paragraph, but it isn't. Just as our personal sins always entangle our neighbor, so, too, our reconciliation with God always involves our neighbor: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
So even as we hasten to make a worthy sacramental Confession in these final days of Advent so, too, we should hasten to mend fences with those around us whom we have offended or whose faith we have weakened by bad example. Any gift we may give a loved one or colleague will be much better appreciated if we offer it with hearts seeking reconciliation and peace.
Finally, when we gaze upon the Christ-child in the crèche, our hope for eternal life should deepen. Christmas is the night when Heaven comes to earth so that earth may have hope of Heaven. Heaven is no mythical place confronting us with the prospect of living our present lives endlessly. Rather, eternal life is the unending experience of the infinite love which our inmost spirit craves: "This is eternal life, to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). Eternal life is a never-ending relationship with the Trinity in the company of all the redeemed, a relationship that plunges us into the fullness of life, the fullness of truth, beauty, goodness, and freedom.
As the Holy Father teaches in Spe Salvi, his recent encyclical on hope, "because Heaven is not empty we are free!' We are free to hope that the deepest desire of our hearts will one day be fulfilled. And as this hope of eternal life takes hold of us, we see those around us in a whole new light. Because we hope that each person is called to eternal friendship with God, we will want to befriend that person along the way, especially the poor and needy in our midst - for they are an image of Christ among us."
I wish you and your families a most joyful and hope-filled Christmas. May the light and life of Jesus shine on you and your loved ones. May you know that enduring love which Christ our light brought into this world that first Christmas night!
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