At the beginning of Advent, when the liturgy turns our attention to the coming of the Savior of the world, Pope Benedict XVI has published a letter on hope — “Spe Salvi” (on Christian hope). We hope for many things, of course, but basically we place our hope in God, the pope says, because we have faith in God. What we hope God will do is give us the gift of eternal life. Christian people would usually not take exception to this, but the Holy Father is aware that many Catholics and other Christians live in secularized cultures and struggle in their own souls with the questions their culture puts to them. He acknowledges that many people desire to extend their life here rather than hope for eternal life with God, which can seem unattractive and unimaginatively tedious to hearts untouched by love for God. The pope notes as well that some consider Christian hope to be individualistic, allowing people to escape from shared concern for this present world. In contrast with Christian hope, modern hope has faith in human progress, which means using reason to achieve perfect freedom here for oneself and others. Pope Benedict reminds us, however, that it is the false utopian dreams of our age that have caused human beings untold suffering. As Savior of the world, Jesus did not intend to have his followers abandon the world but to transform it and bring it with them into eternal union with him. Christmas brings the promise of peace on earth and not only peace in heaven. The condition of peace is union with Christ, who brings us into loving union with all whom he loves. How do we learn to “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me?” (Gal 2:20). The pope suggests three ways of learning to hope. First of all, prayer is a school of hope. When everything seems hopeless and one can no longer talk to anyone else, one can always talk to God. In extended and earnest prayer, our capacity for receiving God is expanded and purified. Secondly, we need hope in order to act, to work in this world. Only the certitude that comes from hope enables us to keep acting in the face of repeated failures. Hope gives us courage to persevere, especially in facing suffering. Suffering brings despair, unless it leads to a growth in maturity that enables us to join other sufferers on a journey that puts goodness, truth and justice ahead of individual well-being and safety. Thirdly, the pope explains that judgment teaches us how to hope. When judgment only prompts protest, whether against God or a government or corporation or the church or another person, the world remains stuck in its own sense of justice. Hope dies. God’s judgment, however, both exposes our compromises with evil and strengthens our openness to love. Opening ourselves daily to God’s judgment increases our hopefulness. These three paths to deeper hope in our lives can shape our life together this Advent. The papal encyclical is full of beautiful reflections and is based on the Holy Father’s reading of Scripture and of human history, but basically the pope is asking us to read our own lives in the light of our faith in God’s promises. Advent will have been a wasted time if it is consumed by frantic activity to celebrate a Christmas that might leave us exhausted. Advent should leave us ready to celebrate Christmas with hearts full of hope: hope because of the birth of our Savior; hope because this Savior brings us eternal life; hope because loving the Lord unites us to the world he created and the people he redeemed. It takes a little practice to renew this virtue and this vision, but prayer during Advent will help, as will sharing the suffering of others, especially of children. At the end of his encyclical letter, Pope Benedict calls Mary the “Star of Hope.” He reminds us that her desire to do God’s will for her and the world made the birth of Jesus possible. Like the humble and great souls of Israel, Mary’s life was full of suffering, yet her hope never wavered. Now, she leads us directly to Jesus her Son. If you have not prayed the Angelus for a while, let me suggest that saying it at noon each day of Advent will make these four weeks a school of hope. As I pray it, I will have all of you in my heart. God bless you. The Angel of the Lord declared to Mary: And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. Hail Mary... Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it done unto me according to your word. Hail Mary... And the Word was made flesh: And dwelt among us. Hail Mary... Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Let us pray: Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts; that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, your Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by his passion and cross be brought to the glory of his resurrection, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.