The Comfort of Hope
Today we shall begin a new series of teachings on the theme of Christian hope. It is very important, because hope never disappoints. Optimism disappoints, but hope does not. We have such need in these times that can appear dark, in which we sometimes feel disoriented by the evil and violence that surround us, by the distress of so many of our brothers and sisters. We need hope. We feel disoriented and even rather discouraged, because we are powerless and it seems this darkness will never end.
We must not let hope abandon us, because God, with his love, walks with us. "I hope, because God is beside me": we can all say this. Each one of us can say: "I hope, I have hope, because God walks with me." He walks and he holds my hand. God does not leave us to ourselves. The Lord Jesus has conquered evil and has opened the path of life for us.
Let us allow the Lord to teach us what it means to hope. Therefore, let us listen to the words of Sacred Scripture, beginning with the prophet Isaiah, the great messenger of hope.
In the second part of his book, Isaiah addresses the people with his message of comfort: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned. ... 'A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken'" (40:1–2, 3–5).
God the Father comforts by raising up comforters, whom he asks to encourage the people, his children, by proclaiming that the tribulation has ended, affliction has ended, and sins have been forgiven. This is what heals the afflicted and fearful heart. This is why the prophet Isaiah asks them to prepare the way of the Lord, to be ready to receive his gifts and his salvation.
For the people, comfort begins with the opportunity to walk on God's path, a new path, made straight and passable, a way prepared in the desert, so as to make it possible to cross it and return to the homeland. The prophet addresses the people who are living the tragedy of the exile in Babylon, and now they hear that they may return to their land, across a path made smooth and wide, without valleys and mountains that make the journey arduous, a level path across the desert. Thus, preparing that path means preparing a way of salvation and liberation from every obstacle and hindrance.
The exile was a fraught moment in the history of Israel, when the people had lost everything. The people had lost their homeland, freedom, dignity, and even trust in God. They felt abandoned and hopeless. However, there is the prophet's appeal which reopens the heart to faith. The desert is a place in which it is difficult to live, but precisely there, one can now walk in order to return not only to the homeland, but return to God, and return to hoping and smiling. When we are in darkness, in difficulty, we do not smile, and it is precisely hope which teaches us to smile in order to find the path that leads to God.
One of the first things that can happen to people who distance themselves from God is that they are people who do not smile. Perhaps they can break into a loud laugh, a joke, a chuckle, but their smile is missing. Only hope brings a smile: it is the hopeful smile in the expectation of finding God.
Life is often a desert; it is difficult to walk in life, but if we trust in God it can become beautiful and wide as a highway. Never lose hope, continue to believe, always, in spite of everything. When we are before a child, although we have many problems and many difficulties, a smile comes to us from within, because we see hope in front of us: a child is hope. And in this way, we must be able to discern in life the way of hope which leads us to find God, God who became a child for us. He will make us smile; he will give us everything.
These very words of Isaiah were used by John the Baptist in his preaching that invites us to conversion. This is what he said: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord" (Mt 3:3). It is a voice which cries out where it seems that no one can hear it — for who can listen in the desert? — and which cries out in the disorientation caused by a crisis of faith. We cannot deny that the world today is in a crisis of faith. People say: "I believe in God, I am a Christian." But their lives are far from being Christian; they are far removed from God. Religion, faith is but an expression: "Do I believe?" — "Yes!"
This means returning to God, converting the heart to God and going on this path to find him. He is waiting for us. This is John the Baptist's preaching: Prepare. Prepare for the encounter with this child who will give our smile back to us.
When the Baptist proclaims Jesus' coming, it is as if the Israelites are still in exile, because they are under the Roman dominion, which renders them foreigners in their own homeland, ruled by powerful occupiers who make decisions about their lives.
However, the true history is not the one made by the powerful, but the one made by God together with his little ones. The true history — that which will remain in eternity — is the one that God writes with his little ones: God with Mary, God with Jesus, God with Joseph, God with the little ones. Those little and simple people whom we see around the newborn Jesus: Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were old and barren; Mary, the young virgin maiden betrothed to Joseph; the shepherds, who were scorned and counted for nothing. It is the little ones, made great by their faith, the little ones who are able to continue to hope. Hope is the virtue of the little ones. The great ones, those who are satisfied, do not know hope; they do not know what it is.
It is the little ones with God, with Jesus, who transform the desert of exile, of desperation and loneliness, of suffering, into a level plain on which to walk in order to encounter the glory of the Lord.
Let us be confident as we await the coming of the Lord, and what the desert may represent in our life — each one of us knows what desert he or she is walking in — and that it will become a garden in bloom, because hope does not disappoint.CHAPTER 2
Reasons for Hope
Chapter 52 of Isaiah begins with the invitation addressed to Jerusalem to awake, shake off the dust and chains, and put on their most beautiful clothes, because the Lord has come to free his people (vv. 1–3). "My people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I" (v. 6). It is to this "here am I" said by the Lord, which sums up his firm will for salvation and closeness to us, that Jerusalem responds with a song of joy, according to the prophet's invitation. It is a very important, historic moment. It is the end of the Babylonian exile; it is the opportunity for Israel to rediscover God and, in faith, rediscover itself. The Lord is near, and the small population that survived the exile and whose faith endured [crisis] while in exile, and continued to believe, and to hope even in the midst of darkness — that "remnant" will be able to see the wonders of God.
At this point, the prophet includes a song of exaltation: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, / who proclaims peace, / who proclaims salvation, / who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns' / Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem; / for the Lord has comforted his people, / he has redeemed Jerusalem. / The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; / and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God" (Is. 52:7, 9–10).
These words of Isaiah, upon which we want to linger awhile, refer to the miracle of peace, and do so in a very specific way, placing the gaze not on the messenger but on his feet that are running quickly: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings."
He is like the spouse in the Canticle of Canticles who runs toward his beloved: "Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills" (2:8). Thus, even the messenger of peace runs, bringing the happy announcement of liberation, of salvation, and proclaiming that God reigns.
God has not abandoned his people, and he has not left them to be vanquished by evil, because he is faithful, and his grace is greater than sin. We must learn this, because we are stubborn and do not learn. However, which is greater, God or sin? God is, and which is victorious to the end, God or sin? God, and he is able to defeat the most serious, the most shameful, the most terrible sin, the worst of sins, and with what weapon does God defeat sin? With love! This means that "God reigns" are the words of faith in a Lord whose power bends down to humanity, to offer mercy, and to free man and woman from all that disfigures in them the beautiful image of God, for when we are in sin, God's image is disfigured. The fulfillment of so much love will be the very kingdom instituted by Jesus, that kingdom of forgiveness and peace: the Lord has remitted my sins, the Lord has forgiven me, the Lord has had mercy on me, he came to save me.
These are the reasons for our hope. When everything seems finished, when, faced with many negative realities, and faith becomes demanding, and there comes the temptation which says that nothing makes sense anymore, behold instead the beautiful news brought by those swift feet: God is coming to fulfill something new, to establish a kingdom of peace. God ... comes to bring freedom and consolation. Evil will not triumph forever; there is an end to suffering. Despair is defeated because God is among us.
And we too are urged to awaken, like Jerusalem, according to the invitation of the prophet; we are called to become men and women of hope, cooperating in the coming of this kingdom made of light and destined for all men and women of hope.
How bad is it when we find a Christian who has lost hope? "But, I don't hope in anything; everything is finished for me," says a Christian who is incapable of looking to the horizons of hope, and before whose heart there is only a wall. However, God destroys such walls with forgiveness. And for this reason, we must pray that each day God may give us hope and give it to everyone, that hope which arises when we see God in the crib in Bethlehem.
The message of the Good News entrusted to us is urgent. We too must run like the messenger on the mountains, because the world cannot wait; humanity is hungry and thirsty for justice, truth, peace. And, seeing the little child of Bethlehem, and the little ones of the world, we will know that the promise was accomplished; the message is fulfilled.
We need to open our hearts to this littleness which is there in that child, and to that great wonder. It is the surprise of a child God, of a poor God, of a weak God, of a God who abandons his greatness to come close to each one of us.CHAPTER 3
Hope Is a Journey
We have begun our journey on the theme of hope. The prophet Isaiah has guided us up to this point. Now, I would like to reflect more specifically on the moment in which hope came into the world, with the incarnation of the Son of God. It was also Isaiah who foretold the birth of the Messiah in several passages: "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (7:14), and also: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots" (11:1). In these passages, God fulfills his promise by becoming human; not abandoning his people, he draws near to the point of stripping himself of his divinity. In this way God shows his fidelity and inaugurates a new kingdom, which gives a new hope to mankind. And what is this hope? Eternal life.
When we speak of hope, often it refers to what is not in humanity's power to realize, which is invisible. In fact, what we hope for goes beyond our strength and our perception. But the birth of Christ, inaugurating redemption, speaks to us of a different hope, a dependable, visible, and understandable hope, because it is founded in God. He comes into the world and gives us the strength to walk with him: God walks with us in Jesus, and walking with him toward the fullness of life gives us the strength to dwell in the present in a new way, albeit an arduous one.
For a Christian, to hope means the certainty of being on a journey with Christ toward the Father who awaits us. Hope is never still; hope is always journeying, and it makes us journey. This hope, which the child of Bethlehem gives us, offers a destination, a sure, ongoing goal, salvation of humanity, blessedness to those who trust in a merciful God. Saint Paul summarizes all this with the expression "in this hope we were saved" (Rom. 8:24).
In other words, walking in this world, with hope, we are saved. Here we can each ask ourselves the question, each one of us: Am I walking with hope or is my interior life static, closed? Is my heart a locked drawer or a drawer open to the hope which enables me to walk not alone but with Jesus?
In Christian homes during the Christian season, the Nativity scene is arranged, according to the tradition which dates back to Saint Francis of Assisi. In its simple way, the Nativity scene conveys hope; each one of the characters is immersed in this atmosphere of hope.
First of all, we note the place where Jesus was born: Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a small village in Judea where, hundreds of years earlier, David was born, the shepherd boy chosen by God to be the king of Israel. Bethlehem is not a capital city and for this reason is preferred by Divine Providence, who loves to act through the little ones and the humble. In that birthplace was born the highly anticipated "Son of David," Jesus, in whom the hope of God and the hope of humanity meet.
We also look to Mary, mother of hope. With her yes she opened the door of our world to God: her maiden's heart was full of hope, wholly enlivened by faith; and thus God chose her and she believed in his word. For nine months, Mary was the ark of the new and eternal Covenant, in the grotto, contemplating the child, and seeing in him the love of God, who comes to save his people and the whole of humanity.
Next to Mary is Joseph, a descendant of Jesse and of David; he too believed in the words of the angel, and looking at Jesus in the manger, reflects on the fact that that child has come from the Holy Spirit, and that God himself commanded him to call the child "Jesus." In that name there is hope for every man and woman, because through that son of woman, God will save humanity from death and from sin. This is why it is important to contemplate the Nativity scene.
In the Nativity scene there are also shepherds, who represent the humble and poor who await the Messiah, the "consolation of Israel" (Lk. 2:25) and the "redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38). In this child they see the realization of the promises and hope that the salvation of God will finally arrive for each of them. Those who trust in their own certainties, especially material, do not await God's salvation.
Let us keep this in mind: our own assurance will not save us; the only certainty that will save us is that of hope in God. It will save us because it is strong and enables us to journey in life with joy, with the will to do good, and to be good, and with the will to attain eternal happiness. The little ones, the shepherds, instead trust in God, hope in him and rejoice when they recognize in that child the sign indicated by the angels.
The very choir of angels proclaims from on high the great design that the child fulfills: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased" (2:14). Christian hope is expressed in praise and gratitude to God, who has initiated his kingdom of love, justice, and peace.
Every yes we say to Jesus is a seed of hope. Let us trust in this seed of hope, in this yes: "Yes, Jesus, you can save me. You can save me, Lord."CHAPTER 4
Hoping against Hope
Saint Paul, in Romans, reminds us of the great figure of Abraham to show us the way of faith and hope. Of him the apostle writes, "He believed, hoping against all hope, and so became the father of many nations" (Rom. 4:18). "Hoping against hope" — this concept is powerful: even when there is no hope, I hope. This is how our father Abraham hoped. Saint Paul is referring to the faith by which Abraham believed the word of God, who promised him a son. It was truly a hope "against hope," so far-fetched was what the Lord was announcing. Abraham was elderly, almost a hundred years old, and his wife Sarah was barren. But God told Abraham, and he believed.