By Deacon Frederick Bartels
18 December 2016
The theological virtue of hope, itself a gift from God, is integral to a fruitful Advent which entails looking forward in fervent expectation of the arrival of the Christ Child, who himself is the fulfillment of every human hope.
This Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah (7:10-14) ends with these words: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Advent is a season of preparation in hope for the feast of Christmas, the sacred day on which we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. Christmas is a singularity unique day in the history of the cosmos because on that day the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, was born of the Virgin Mary in the little town of Bethlehem (a name which means “house of bread”) and laid in a humble manger.
On that day, Mary gives birth to the long-awaited Messiah-King, the Redeemer who arrived unexpectedly and unknown to the world, yet who will give the greatest possible gift to the world in giving himself, in offering his sacred humanity on a Roman cross in order to put death to death. The New Adam, Jesus Christ, will restore what the first Adam lost through sin. The Christ Child will redeem humankind and re-create those who have faith in him.
Laid in a manger in Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” the Christ Child will soon offer himself as the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35), the sacrament of Eucharist which is the gift of Christ himself (see Jn 6), in order for humankind to have life in abundance (Jn 10:10).
Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. It is a time of longing in hope for the Child who will open the way from earth to heaven by the power of the cross. It is a time of expectation and thankfulness. It is a season in which we reflect on the riches and love of Christ; a love more powerful than death; a love that goes all the way for the sake of eternal life. Advent is a season of yearning for Emmanuel, “God with us,” who is the realization of every human hope.
In America today, we often rush from the secular holiday of Thanksgiving right into Christmas, bypassing Advent altogether. The Christmas music is played, the sales begin, gifts are purchased, trees go up and the lights go on. When Christmas arrives, the focus is often not simply off-balance but misplaced: it’s more on gift giving and socializing than on the birth of Christ. After Christmas day has passed, the tree is quickly discarded and the rush returns. We hurriedly vacuum things up and fall back into ordinary life; perhaps look forward to the coming New Year’s celebration. In the end, we’re left feeling empty.
One reason for this is lack of hope. Why is hope important, and what is it?
Theologically speaking, hope is a divinely infused virtue and gift of the Holy Spirit received through faith and baptism. The theological virtue of hope is a gift of divine grace which enables a person to look forward in trust to the promises of Christ. These promises include a sacred and holy life in the society of truth, the Church; the re-creation of the human person through reception of the saving sacraments in faith and the communication of the Holy Spirit; resurrection and glorification of your individual human body; assumption into the life and love of Trinitarian communion; and the perfect happiness of unending life in heaven with Christ.
Another reason for lack of hope is its loss. The theological virtue of hope is lost through an intentional commission of a known grave sin. This type of sin, called “mortal” because it extinguishes or kills the life of grace in the soul, destroys one’s relationship with God; consequently, the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are lost through the commission of mortal sin because these virtues are lost as sanctifying grace is lost. The solution is the sacrament of Penance, often referred to as the second plank of salvation after the shipwreck of sin, which is a sacrament instituted by Christ for the forgiveness of sin (see Jn 20:23 for its scriptural basis). One can attend this healing sacrament having lost God’s friendship, make a good confession, and complete it as relationally restored to God and the Church as a saintly member of Christ’s body!
In a manner of speaking, hope gives us eyes for the true nature of our future, lets us see the fuller dimension of our human destiny with divine light and clarity. Not only that, but the virtue of hope strengthens us in many ways in our everyday life. Hope directs us to live in a new, expectant and holy way, walking a path filled with joy over the certain promises of God-made-man himself. The theological virtue of hope rests on the incarnation of the Son of God, which is the first moment of our redemption, and on the subsequent birth of the Christ Child who is himself the source of truth and life.
In today’s gospel (Mt 1:18-24), the evangelist Matthew narrates the details of Joseph’s dream and the subsequent message he received from the “angel of the Lord.” Joseph is told that Mary will “bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus means “God saves.”
We may think we are in need of more things, more material possessions, more wealth, perhaps a larger home, a more prestigious job, better friends, etc. However, ultimately these things do not constitute our greatest need. Instead of these passing things, we need what only Christ can provide: salvation and everlasting life.
When Joseph awoke from his dream, “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife [Mary] into his home.” And, with Mary, he brought the Christ Child growing in her womb into the intimacy of his home. This is precisely what the preparation of Advent is about: bringing Mary and her Son, the Christ Child into our home, into our lives and into the depth of our hearts.
It’s Never too late to prepare
There’s only one week left in Advent, yet it’s never too late to begin to prepare or perhaps prepare more fully for the arrival of the Redeemer. Of course, preparation for Christ must always begin with prayer to him. Here are a few other easy suggestions to help make this last week of Advent more fruitful for you:
1) Receive the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (especially if you are conscious of having committed grave sin, such as, for example, intentionally neglecting to participate in the celebration of the Mass on Sundays and other days of obligation, in which case you should not receive the Eucharist until you have first received absolution by a priest in the context of the sacrament of Penance).
2) If you’re not attending Mass every Sunday, please begin to do so. Vatican II stressed that at Mass your redemption is carried out. The divine liturgy is a sacred event surpassing all others. We cannot expect to grow closer to Christ if we neglect the sacrifice of the Mass in which his body and blood, the Eucharist, is offered on the altar in expiation of sin.
3) Read the section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the virtue of hope (CCC 1817-1821). Pray that Christ sends his Spirit more deeply into your heart to impart to you his own divine understanding and ignite a deep sense of hope within you.
4) Reflect on how the promises of Christ are promises of ultimate happiness and fullness of living. If you remain faithful to him, you will inherit these everlasting promises.
5) Think about the things of heaven and begin to develop a holy detachment from things of the world. In this last week of Advent, give something up as a concrete and penitential way of expressing your love for Christ over and above the fleeting things of the world.
May Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, lead us all into perfect union with her Son, the Christ Child; for as she bore him into the world for the salvation of men, she guides us as our spiritual mother into the womb of the Church, where we become members of his Body and inherit the promise of everlasting life.
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Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Virgin_Madre_della_Consolazione_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.