Christmases past and yet to come

The peace of God is with us forever

We are approaching the last Sunday of Advent. The Compass does not publish an issue next week, so this is our Christmas issue. Here, you will find stories about mercy, holy doors and children’s thoughts on and images of the Archangel Gabriel at the first Christmas.

At this time of year, we gather with family and friends to look back on Christmases past and wonder about Christmases yet to come. Some faces around us are new this year; some have gone. In the church, 10 new saints were added this year to the official lists, including Junipero Serra and the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Louis and Marie-Azélie Martin.

At Christmas, we exchange gifts.

What gifts did we get this year? One was the long-anticipated papal encyclical on the care of creation, Laudato Si’, issued in May. Then, there was an historic agreement on climate accord signed by 196 countries in Paris just this month. In July, the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations, ending 54 years of tension between the two nations. In September, Pope Francis visited both Cuba and the U.S., where he addressed the United Nations and both houses of the U.S. Congress — a papal first. Pilgrims flooded into Philadelphia, both to see the pope and for the World Meeting of Families.

In the church, we celebrated a year honoring those living in consecrated life and, on the Immaculate Conception feast day, we began an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, which will bring countless blessings.

Of course, at every Christmas, there are some gifts we would rather return. As we approach Christmas 2015, the world might wish it could return the April earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 9,000 people; two different shootings in Paris that killed first 12 and then 130; the September stampede at the Hajj site in Mecca that killed more than 2,200 pilgrims; and the shootings at a San Bernardino Christmas party earlier this month.

If we could ask for a gift this year, the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, might like to get back the gift of their homeland. Something for the 22 percent of U.S. children living in poverty would be nice, too.

When things come together just right for Christmas, it can make us want to freeze that moment in time: stop everything just when everyone is happy, well-fed, safe and together. Then, for one, blissful moment, there would be nothing to fear, no danger or disasters lurking, no illnesses or impending death. All would be calm, all would be bright.

For one blissful moment, it was exactly that way in Bethlehem. As columnist Lyn Zahorik (page 20) reminds us, the church’s Christmas Eve proclamation reads: “… in the 42nd year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, with the whole world being at peace…Jesus Christ was born …”

If we could freeze moments in time, wouldn’t that be the perfect one? “All was calm, all was bright.”

But what would have happened — or not happened — if time had stood still at Bethlehem? Jesus would never have grown up, never preached and healed people, never died and rose for us. The church would have been at peace because it would never have been founded. We wouldn’t have a countless list of saints who, through the Communion of Saints, pray for us each day. And none of us alive today would have been created to know God’s mercy and grace.

I doubt any mortal world can remain safe, secure and at peace. Things cannot always be calm and bright. But, as the Christmas angel said, “Fear not.”

That phrase is one of the most frequently used in the Bible: “Fear not;” “Be not afraid;” “Do not fear.” Some Scripture commentators tell us this assurance appears as many as 365 different times — at least once for each day of the year. Whether or not this is so, God clearly wants us to hear it.

So, as we head into another year — another 365 days (366 in 2016) until next Christmas, remember this: “Fear not.” The peace of God (and his love and mercy) — which is beyond all understanding — is with you. Forever.