“Christmas festival canceled” and “Cancel Christmas plans” were two of the headlines that grabbed my attention recently as I was reading the news online. At the end of one of the articles, someone commented that “we might as well cancel Christmas, everything else has been!” Many people gave this comment the “thumbs up.”
No doubt, this year has been a challenging one for many of us. I think of the canceled plans that I had to see my family from Ireland back in April and the hope that we held in our hearts that we might get together at Christmas. Not so in a COVID-19 year. But in a year filled with many disappointments, there were also glimmers of gratitude and grace. The frantic pace of life slowed for a time, and we evaluated our relationship with our schedules, our work, our health and our family and friends.
Despite what the retail industry suggests or newsmakers would like us to believe, Christmas has not and never will be canceled. It is now, more than ever, that we need the birth of Jesus Christ to remind us of what and — most importantly — who is at the center of our lives. How should we live as Advent people approaching the birth of Jesus? Here are two keys: humility and hope.
Many modern mangers might present a cozy winter season with plenty of straw and well-behaved animals, but the reality is often much more stark. Barns are not ordinarily comfortable places, but dusty, dirty, draughty and quite often smelly. Jesus’ birth took place in a manger “because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). Yet, we hear no complaints in the Scriptures from Mary and Joseph. Their witness reminds us that making a home for Jesus doesn’t start with what we have, but who we are as children of God. Their entire focus was on Jesus.
The first witnesses to the birth of Jesus were humble shepherds, looked down upon by society at that time for their lack of power and influence. It was not dignitaries, government officials or important tradespeople who were present, but the lowly, meek and humble.
In his general audience on Dec. 19, 2018, Pope Francis emphasized that “Christmas is the victory of humility over arrogance, of simplicity over abundance, of silence over clamour, of prayer over ‘my time,’ of God over my self.” From a lowly manger, the king of heaven reminds us that one of the keys to witnessing the birth day of Jesus is humility.
Living in humility means that we put others before ourselves, and for many people this year, it may mean refraining from being with vulnerable loved ones during this time or finding other ways to connect. We may not get to see our loved ones this year and we may not get everything ticked off our to-do list, but can we find the time to slow down and make room in the “inn” of our hearts for Jesus to make a home within us? Humility opens us up to great blessings, often in the most overlooked places and at the most unexpected times, like a dusty manger in Bethlehem. Humility teaches us that it is God who is in control and that we must trust him, no matter where he leads us. He alone is our hope and strength.
Hope is one of the three theological virtues, along with faith and love. Hope opens us up to greater faith and expands our capacity to love. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his beautiful encyclical, “Spe Salvi” (“Saved by Hope”), tells us that the “essential setting for learning hope is prayer. When no one listens to me anymore, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God”.
This is a good reminder that prayer is often the best step in helping us to increase in faith, hope and love. As this year draws to a close, with all of its trials and tribulations, Advent reminds us that God is always moving — bringing order from chaos, light from darkness and transforming fear to hope.
Christmas is so much more than a time or a season. It is a reminder for us to be people of humility and hope as the birth of Jesus represents a great victory over the darkness of destruction and death. Christmas is the birth of hope anew for each one of us, no matter what this year has been like, and nothing and no one can take that away from us.
Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church” (Loyola Press).