In a world shattered by war and rumors of war, by gross disparities of wealth, by the savaging of physical nature and the corrupting of human nature, hope seems the most foolish of illusions, yet desired all the more.
Yet Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical, Spe Salvi (On Christian hope), can also be read as a moving meditation on Christmas and the message of hope that it signifies.
Indeed, the Latin phrase Pope Benedict introduces at the beginning -- "How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing" -- seems particularly poignant now. As a society, we make this feast of hope into an orgy of consumption, yet we are left falling back from nothing to nothing. Inflated expectations, an agitation of wants and material baubles that can never satisfy what we most desire -- this is how Christmas is "celebrated" today. Too often it can be reduced to an economic indicator.
And because we do not see the shadow of the cross fall across the Child in the manger, we do not behave as if we fully appreciate what this feast signifies: The arrival of God's Son, born amid animals and their feed, is when true hope arrives in our world, for the Babe, both fully human and fully divine, is the bearer of our redemption.
The pope quotes the convert slave, St. Josephine Bakhita, who said that hope came from her encounter with Jesus: "I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me -- I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good."
Would that this were the conclusion of every self-professed Christian on Christmas Day.
Yet the challenge is that so many of us have not necessarily been transformed by God's gift of himself to us. We do not fully trust. We do not live our lives as if we are definitively loved by Someone who walks with us through the Valley of Death.
We do not dare let ourselves be transformed by the Savior's arrival into our world for us all. And because we are so reluctant to risk being transformed by this reality, we do not always understand what the pope calls the "social character of hope."
Salvation is not something meant for single individuals alone, the pope says. Sin fragmented and divided the human race, proof of which is on every front page of every newspaper every day. Yet Jesus lived and died for all of us, and in the hope won for us by his sacrifice, there is unity.
This unity is manifested in service to others. It is not a political agenda or a mindless faith in material progress. It is not an institution or legislation. Rather, it is the task of every generation, a task that is never completed in this world, yet one that is a manifestation of our faith in the redemption Christ won for us.
This is why we are called to serve the poor, the immigrant and the lonely. This is why we defend the weakest in our midst. We do not serve because we think that any victory will be final -- not on this earth, at least. We live for them and serve them because we live for and serve him. In the words of the pope, citing St. Augustine: "Christ died for all. To live for him means allowing oneself to be drawn into his being for others."
As we gather with our families around the crèche on Christmas Day, let us be mindful of what that scene really signifies. It is a message of hope in the redemption won for us by that Babe. It is a gift so precious that we long to pray with St. Josephine Bakhita: "I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me -- I am awaited by this love."