A season of hope

The liturgical season of Advent is a time of preparation for the great solemnity of Christmas. The name comes from the Latin word adventus, which means a coming or an approach. During Advent the theological virtue of hope is prominent. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “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” (No. 1817). The birth of Jesus signals the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel for its Savior. The people of Israel had suffered captivity and persecution, but the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, reveals the tender mercy of God who gives light to “those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow” (Lk 1:79).

This Advent marks the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s great encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi (Nov. 30, 2007). It also follows a yearlong series of catechesis by Pope Francis during his general audiences. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis see hope as particularly important in a world filled with doubt, destruction and despair.

This special In Focus gives readers the opportunity to journey through each week of Advent by meditating particularly on four different aspects of hope, accompanied by relevant Scripture passages and by the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Robert Fastiggi is a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

FIRST WEEK OF ADVENT

First Sunday of Advent
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December 3

Reading: Mark 13:33-37

Quotation: “You do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. ... May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Steps toward hope
◗ See the trials in our lives as opportunities to grow in virtue.
◗ Do not despair, but realize that all hope resides in trusting in Christ.
◗ Appreciate that all gifts — material and otherwise — come from God.

In the Old Testament, the hope is for a Messiah who will deliver the people of Israel from their enemies. This hope is expressed by the words of the 12th-century hymn: “O come O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”

Hope for redemption goes back to Genesis 3:15, which, after the Fall, prophecies the coming of the Redeemer, the offspring of the woman, who will crush the head of the serpent.

It continues with the covenant of Abraham who believed, “hoping against hope, that he would become ‘the father of many nations’” (Rom 4:18). After God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, the Kingdom of Israel is established, and God promises to David that he will raise up one of his heirs to be king whose royal throne will be firm through the end of time (see 2 Sm 7:16).

Jesus, of course, is the long-awaited Messiah and the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, but he makes it clear that his kingdom does not belong to this world (see Jn 18:36). After the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the early Christians faced persecution and needed to be sustained in hope.

St. Paul tells the Romans that they should not only “boast in hope of the glory of God” but also boast of their afflictions (Rom 5:2-3). This is because “affliction produces endurance, and endurance proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).

St. Paul also teaches us that “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor 15:19). The theological virtue of hope directs us to eternal love with God in the communion of saints. Love, of course, is experienced in this life, but this love “remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death” (Spe Salvi, No. 26). Pope Benedict XVI teaches:

“The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom 8:38-39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then — only then — is man ‘redeemed,’ whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances” (Spe Salvi, No. 26).

The theological virtue of hope expands our hearts and helps us to know that God’s love is the foundation of our ultimate hope. We have confidence that as bad as things get in this life, God will be faithful to his promise of eternal life.

Because of skepticism about the future life, many people in the world today place their hope in material progress. This type of hope, however, does not satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Pope Benedict XVI offers this insight:

“... [O]ur contemporary age has developed the hope of creating a perfect world that, thanks to scientific knowledge and to scientifically based politics, seemed to be achievable. Thus biblical hope in the kingdom of God has been displaced by hope in the kingdom of man, the hope of a better world which would be the real ‘Kingdom of God.’ This seemed at last to be the great and realistic hope that man needs. It was capable of galvanizing — for a time — all man’s energies. The great objective seemed worthy of full commitment. In the course of time, however, it has become clear that this hope is constantly receding. Above all it has become apparent that this may be a hope for a future generation, but not for me” (Spe Salvi, No. 30).

The ephemeral hope for a perfect world recedes because of human sin. Corruption, violence and greed often undermine political and economic systems that claim to offer hope for the future. People also place their hope in personal goals, but these also fail to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI explains:

“Day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Sometimes one of these hopes may appear to be totally satisfying without any need for other hopes. Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain” (No. 30).

The truth is that only God, who is infinite, can satisfy the deepest aspirations of the human heart. If we place our hope in finite human pleasures or material success, we eventually will end up frustrated. All the good things of this life must be enjoyed in light of our ultimate calling to eternal life with God in heaven. Benedict XVI offers these words of wisdom:

“Let us say once again: we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety.

“His kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life” (Spe Salvi, No. 31).

SECOND WEEK OF ADVENT

Second Sunday of Advent
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December 10

Reading: Mark 1:1-8

Quotation: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Steps toward hope
◗ Embrace the Communion of Saints.
◗ Be the face of Christ to others by offering hope through our charity.
◗ Pray for those who face persecution for their faith.

There are many challenges to hope that people face today: poverty, violence, natural disasters and others. There are so many events that can trigger depression and temptations against hope: the loss of a job, terminal illness or the death of a loved one. In a particular way, we should think of our fellow Christians facing persecution and death in parts of the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world.

In the face of such challenges, Pope Francis reminds us that we are never alone. As Christians we are linked not only with the living but also with “the companionship of ‘big’ brothers and sisters — the saints — who had taken this same path before us, who knew the same struggles and who live forever in God’s embrace” (general audience, June 21, 2017).

Recognizing the reality of evil and hatred in the world, the Pope Francis notes from that same general audience:

“Christians do not despair in the fight against evil. Christianity cultivates an incurable trust: it does not believe that negative and disintegrating forces can prevail. The last word on the history of mankind is not hatred; it is not death; it is not war. In each of life’s moments, the hand of God assists us, as well as the discrete presence of all the believers who ‘have gone before us marked with the sign of faith’ (Roman Canon). Their existence tells us, above all, that Christian life is not an unattainable ideal. And at the same time, it comforts us: We are not alone. The Church is made up of innumerable, often anonymous, brothers and sisters who preceded us and who, through the action of the Holy Spirit, are involved in the affairs of those who still live here on earth.”

Pope Francis also recognizes that many Christians today are facing martyrdom. In the face of persecution and death, we must never lose hope.

St. Paul writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor 4:8-10).

The great apostle also tells us that we “groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies; for in hope we are saved” (Rom 8:23-24). In the midst of persecution or in the face of death, we might be tempted to lose sight of the glory that awaits the children of God. St. Paul, though, reminds us that “hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance” (Rom 8:24–25).

Pope Francis points to the martyrs as a particular source of strength for Christians facing persecution. He speaks of “Christian hope as the strength of the martyrs,” and he notes that “the proclamation of the kingdom of God always involves opposition. ... Christians love but they are not always loved. Jesus places us before this reality from the start. In a somewhat strong measure, the confession of faith occurs in a hostile climate” (general audience, June 28, 2017).

THIRD WEEK OF ADVENT

Third Sunday of Advent
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December 17

Reading: Mark 1:1-8

Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Quotation: “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”

Steps toward hope
◗ Spend time with the Gospels to better comprehend the source of all hope.
◗ Attempt to understand the joy of being fully in the presence of God in heaven.
◗ In your own way, offer hope by evangelizing to those who do not know Christ.

As Christians, we must be sustained by the hope of heaven. St. Paul tells us that “the sufferings of the present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed” (Rom 8:18). Pope Francis reminds us that we should mediate on the final chapters of the Book of Revelation to sustain us in the hope of the kingdom of God:

“The closing pages of the Bible show us the ultimate horizon of our journey as believers: the heavenly Jerusalem, the celestial Jerusalem. It is envisioned first of all as an immense tent, where God will welcome all mankind so as to dwell with them definitively (21:3). ... ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. ... Behold, I make all things new’ (21:3-5). The God of newness!” (general audience, Aug. 23, 2017).

What, though, will heaven be like? Above all, it will be an ongoing state of love and communion. Love is the deepest longing of the human heart, and in heaven, we will be embraced by the love of God and surrounded by the love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels, and all the saints. Pope Francis offers this description:

“Paradise is not a fairy-tale place, much less an enchanted garden. Paradise is the embrace of God, infinite Love, and we enter there thanks to Jesus, who died on the cross for us. Where there is Jesus there is mercy and happiness; without him there is cold and darkness. ... He wants to take us to the most beautiful place that exists. ... This is the aim of our existence: that all be fulfilled, and be transformed into love” (general Audience, Oct. 25, 2017).

The hope for heaven must be the light that guides our choices in life. We must never forget that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:4). Yes, the loss of heaven and the pains of hell are real possibilities, but we should pray the prayer taught by the Blessed Mother at Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell; lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.”

We must place our hope in the mercy of God for the salvation of children who have died without baptism (see CCC, No. 1261) and for those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church (CCC, No. 847). Because God wishes all people to be saved, we must never lose hope for the salvation of loved ones who have left the Catholic Church or abandoned the practice of their faith. God is the ultimate judge, and he will “bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts” (1 Cor 4:5).

In ways unknown to us, God will be able to discern hidden movements of faith, hope and charity in the hearts of those whose souls are known to him alone. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of prayer as “a school of hope” (Spe Salvi, No. 32).

We must never cease to pray for the salvation of all those living who can still turn their hearts to God. We must place our hope in God’s infinite mercy sustained by the knowledge that he wishes all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.

Holy Family
Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child offer models of hope this Advent. Shutterstock

FOURTH WEEK OF ADVENT

Fourth Sunday of Advent
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December 24

Reading: Luke 1:26-38

Quotation: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Steps toward hope
◗ Appreciate Mary’s role in salvation history through her fiat.
◗ Like Mary, be open to listening to and discerning God’s will for us.
◗ Ask our Blessed Mother to help us grow closer to her son this Advent.

Advent is a special time to meditate on the role of the Blessed Mother in salvation history. She is the “New Eve” prophesied in Genesis 3:15, whose offspring will crush the head of Satan. She also participates in the defeat of the Devil by her intimate union with her divine Son in the work of salvation.

As the Second Vatican Council teaches: “[Mary] conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ.

She presented him to the Father in the temple, and was united with him by compassion as he died on the cross. In this singular way, she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in giving back supernatural life to souls, wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace” (Lumen Gentium, No. 61).

Mary is the star of hope for us. She has gone before us in the journey of life, and she points us to the hope found in her beloved Son, Our Lord. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

“Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by — people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her ‘yes’ she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14)” (Spe Salvi, 49).

Mary not only is the “star of hope;” she is also “the Mother of hope” because she sustains our hope as a loving mother. In his general audience of May 10, 2017, Pope Francis put this so beautifully:

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“[Mary] is the mother of hope, in the midst of that community of such fragile disciples: one had denied, many had fled, all had been afraid (cf. Acts 1:14). She simply stood by, in the most natural of ways, as if it were something completely normal: in the first Church enveloped in the light of the Resurrection, but also in the trepidation of the first steps that had to be taken in the world.

“For this reason we all love her as Mother. We are not orphans: We have a Mother in heaven who is the holy Mother of God. Because she teaches us the virtue of waiting, even when everything seems to lack meaning: She is ever confident in the mystery of God, even when he seems to have eclipsed himself due to the evil of the world. In the most difficult moments, may Mary, the mother that Jesus gave to all of us, always support our steps, may she always say to our hearts: ‘Arise! Look forward, look to the horizon,’ because she is the Mother of Hope.”