Spe Salvi Day

First of all, a blessed Advent to all.  Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and the first day of a new liturgical year.  Advent is, uniquely, a season of hope.  Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, offered an extraordinary essay on this last year, and it appears this week on the FT blog.  A snip:

I’ve noticed in recent years, however, that the ­feeling comes over me more rarely than it used to, and for shorter bits of time. I have to pursue the sense of wonder, the taste in the air, and cling to it self-consciously. Even for me, the endless roar of untethered Christmas anticipation is close to drowning out the disciplined anticipation of Advent. And when Christmas itself arrives, it has begun to seem a day not all that different from any other. Oh, yes, church and home to a big dinner. Presents for the children. A set of decorations. But nothing special, really.

It is this that Advent, rightly kept, would prevent—the thing, in fact, it is designed to halt. Through all the preparatory readings, through all the genealogical Jesse trees, the somber candles on the wreaths, the vigils, and the hymns, Advent keeps Christmas on Christmas Day: a fulfillment, a perfection, of what had gone before.

Do check out the whole thing this week.

We have to note that it was one year ago today that Pope Benedict XVI signed the second encyclical letter of his pontificate, Spe Salvi, on Christian hope.  “The Gospel,” he wrote in that letter, “is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”

This reference to how we live reflects a theme that runs throughout the encyclical.  As I tried to bring out strongly in Your Guide to Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope, the Pope’s intention is not to offer a pious theological reflection on a point of doctrine.  No, he insists on pressing the question throughout his letter: What difference — what real, concrete difference — does the virtue of hope make to those who possess it? 

In fact he presents several living, breathing examples of people who have lived lives pulsing with hope — St. Josephine Bakhita, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, and St. Paul Le-Bao-Tinh — and draws out the difference it made to them.  None of them were strangers to the pains and frustrations of real life.  Indeed, they knew more suffering than most of us, thank God, ever will. 

And yet, it was hope, for example, that fueled Bakhita’s conviction (Bakhita, who literally bore the scars of brutal childhood beatings upon her body) that “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”  That is as concentrated a statement of Christian hope as you will find anywhere.

Many of the guest posts that have appeared on this blog during the past month have brought out this point very well, too.  Reading them, I have given thanks for the hope that is in the hearts of these authors and that has been shared with us here. 

Appropriately, we also bring to a close today a month traditionally dedicated to remembering and praying for those who have died.  Along these lines, I would encourage you to take a look at the text of a homily delivered earlier this week at the funeral of a young woman who was a well-known figure among many Washington, DC, Catholics.  A snip:

The first Christians had a beautiful symbol they engraved on their tombs, a symbol unknown to the pagans: the anchor. With it, they signified that their ship, on its final voyage over the ocean of death, was not without security in its crossing the waves. There was a sturdy device aboard that would firmly secure them on arrival in the final harbour.

This anchor is placed in Heaven, and, as the letter to the Hebrews tell us, is a symbol for Jesus, who has entered heaven before us, opening us a firm path in the ultimate journey of death. And thus, this anchor is not totally like the anchors we let fall into the deep, because this anchor is thrown upwards, similar to what mountaineers employ to climb mountains.

Prayer for the dead, and consideration of our own deaths from the standpoint our Christian faith, is an act of hope.

Advent is the season of hope because we remember and celebrate the coming of Christ into human life more than 2000 years ago, we remind ourselves and give thanks for this presence among us in our very midst, and we look forward to and pray for the coming of Christ at the end of time.

Louis-Marie Chauvet, one of the most significant sacramental theologians of our day, points out (in this book) that the sacramental hosts that we consume at Mass and adore outside of Mass offer a wonderful image of Christian hope.  By faith, we see Christ present in our palm, “body, blood, soul, and divinity — the whole Christ” (as Trent put it, and  the Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats).  And yet to “the naked eye,” in particular to the doubting eye, it seems to be just bread, nothing more. 

Hope is similar, Chauvet suggests.  Without it, life is merely what it seems to be at face value — it has its nice moments, joyful moments, sorrowful moments, miserable moments.  But in the end, none of these moments have any special significance beyond what they appear to be on the surface.  But by our faith and our hope (which Benedict insists at length in Spe Salvi to be intimately interrelated), we see Christ present in the midst of it all, accompanying us, guiding us, strengthening us.

May I suggest a re-reading of Spe Salvi this Advent season (with Your Guide to help you along, if it seems like it might), and an ongoing prayer that the Spirit open you and us ever more widely and generously to the gift of hope that God offers.  It is, after all, a theological virtue, which is, unlike most virtues, received rather than achieved.

And let’s pray together, those who peruse these words this week, this season: Come, Lord Jesus.  Come, Lord Jesus.

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