Hope at Christmas

John 1:1-18

There’s a story that’s been told of an elderly woman named Stella Thornhope who was struggling because it was her first Christmas alone. Her husband had died just a few months prior as a result of a slow developing cancer. Now, just a few days before Christmas, she found herself snowed in by a brutal weather system. She felt terribly alone, so much so that she decided she wasn’t going to decorate for Christmas.

 

Late that afternoon the doorbell rang, and there was a delivery boy with a box. He said, "Mrs. Thornhope?" She said, “yes”? He said, "Would you sign here?" She invited him to step inside and closed the door to get away from the cold. She signed the paper and said, "What's in the box?" The young man smiled and opened up the flap, and inside was a little puppy, a golden Labrador retriever. The delivery boy picked up the squirming little pup and explained, "This is for you, Ma'am. He's six weeks old, completely housebroken." The young puppy began to wiggle in happiness at being released from captivity.

 

"Who sent this?" Mrs. Thornhope asked. The young man set the little dog down, handed her an envelope and said, "It's all explained here in this envelope, Ma'am. The dog was bought last July while its mother was still pregnant. It was meant to be a Christmas gift to you." The young man then handed her a book, How to Care for Your Labrador Retriever.

 

In desperation she again asked, "But who sent me this puppy?" As the young man turned to leave, he said with a warm smile, "Your husband, Ma'am. Your husband sent it. Merry Christmas!"

 

She slowly opened up the letter. It was from her husband. He had written it three weeks before he died and left it with the kennel owners to be delivered with the puppy as his last Christmas gift to her. The letter was full of love and encouragement and admonishments to be strong. He vowed that he was waiting for the day when she would join him. He had sent her this young pup to keep her company until then.

 

She wiped away the tears, put the letter down, and then remembering the puppy at her feet, she picked up the golden furry ball of a dog and held it up to her neck. Then she looked out the window at the lights that outlined the neighbor's house, and she heard from the radio in the kitchen the strains of "Joy to the World, the Lord has Come!"

Suddenly Stella felt an amazing sensation of peace washing over her. Her heart felt a joy and a wonder greater than the grief and loneliness.

 

"Little fella," she said to the dog, "It's just you and me. But you know what? There's a box down in the basement I'll bet you'd like. It's got a little Christmas tree in it and some decorations and lights that you’ll just love. And there's a manger scene down there too. Let's go get it."

 

Christmas has a way, God has a way, of sending a signal of light to remind us life is stronger than death. As the Gospel tells us, the light is more powerful than darkness. Darkness will not overcome it. If we have faith in God, we find hope, and hope is more powerful than despair.

 

To live with joy in this world, we need to live with a focus on hope.  Hope is more than wishful thinking or being optimistic. As Christians, we are encouraged, and maybe even commanded, to have hope. It’s one of, what we call, the “theological virtues” along with faith and love. Hope is based on realism, not fanciful optimism. But what is it exactly?

 

Hope has its roots in faith. What I mean by that is, we oftentimes look at faith as a belief in a certain set of propositions. But that gets us only part of the way there. More fundamentally, faith is when we entrust ourselves to another.  So when it comes to faith in God, I’ve chosen to entrust myself to God. So faith is not just a set of propositions, it’s not just an agreement, it’s a relationship. So if I have faith in Jesus, I have faith God himself, which means I place my trust in him.

 

Hope is this trust extended into the future, so as I look forward into my future life, and my end of life here on earth, I’m not just optimistic as in saying that I wish or think things will turn out right, I’m living that relationship with God and believing that this relationship is the thing that will sustain me, that will carry me through, that will give me the ultimate outcome that I seek for my life, a real and unending joy.

 

This Christmas story that we celebrate, and Christ’s ultimate victory, his strength and power, can sustain us beyond this day of celebration. The Gospel says, “All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be.” For Christians, what this should tell us is that we’re not rooted in, we’re not dependent on, “things going well” for us. There’s something bigger going on than “things going well” for us. It’s this relationship of trust in God, because I know that he has not failed me, he is not failing me and he will not fail me.

 

That doesn’t mean that bad things are not going to happen. My health may falter, I may not get the promotion that I prayed for, and I may suffer through the most serious of injustices. As the expression goes, I may have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but as I do at times have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he will be with me at my side. He will never abandon me – he won’t abandon any of us.  He hasn’t just set us all in motion and left us to fend for ourselves. He walks with us whether we acknowledge him or not.

 

What is it that keeps us from being hopeful, or negates hopefulness? The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of two things: One is presumption and the other is despair.

 

Presumption says, “I really don’t need God - I can do this on my own. I don’t need God’s help.” Presumption could also sound something like this: “Look, he’s going to forgive me no matter what, so I’m not going to even worry about it. Why do I have to cooperate with him – I’m ‘spiritual’ enough on my own.”  That’s presumption – that’s not hope because it’s not relational. “I don’t need him and he doesn’t need me.”

 

Despair is, “I don’t have God. He’s not there. I can’t entrust me in my weaknesses to God because I don’t believe he’ll walk with me through this.”

 

Stella Thornhope was on the doorstep of despair. But what happened to her?  She received the gift of hope in the form of that little puppy. Her husband sent it to her to sustain her until the day that she would be reunited with him. That’s what hope is- a gift. By definition, a gift is unmerited, given to us by God. It’s also relational in that it perpetuates the bond we have with God. And it gives us the assurance of ultimate joy. All Stella had to do was to open the box. But hope, just like that little puppy, needs to be nurtured and cared for. It needs nourished.

 

How do we nourish our hope? Catholic author Matthew Kelly speaks of this frequently. He says that no matter where our needle is pointing on the scale that has hopefulness on one side and hopelessness on the other, to move that needle, we need to do more than try to just think our way to more hopefulness, we’ve got to act our way out of it.

 

And we act our way to a more hopeful status by doing things that lead to hope, however modest that they be. They can’t be a one and done. That would make it not relational. Whatever it is we need to keep showing up.

 

I invite you to consider doing one or more of the following things to nourish your hope: Maybe it’s implementing a new habit of daily prayer- make it modest, simple, but most importantly, sustainable. Maybe it's by being more generous than you've ever been before, in whatever form that takes- the first of the year is a good time to start. Perhaps you’ll want to use this season to begin to repair a relationship that's been broken or strained for too long. Or maybe in this coming year, you're going to nourish your hope by joining others at church more regularly or in a more meaningful way.  

 

I imagine that, maybe even more than the presence of the little golden Labrador retriever, what may have made Stella Thornhope most hopeful was the promise-filled love letter from her husband, filled with love and encouragement and admonishments to be strong. Come to think of it, that’s what this is for us (holding up the Book of the Gospels).  God’s love letter to us, filled with love and encouragement and admonishments to be strong.

 

When we live with hope, we live with the liberating feeling that no matter life’s twists and turns, we have Jesus at our side, and he won’t let us down.

 

And so we pray today, Lord, help us make this Christmas our best Christmas ever, not because of the material gifts we receive, but because we will become more willing to acknowledge the gift that we’ve already received from you, our faith, and the trust we have in you extended into the future, which is our hope.

 

Give us the nudge we need from time to time to nurture our hope and make our lives more meaningful. And with the certainty that it brings, we will depend on you to sustain us in until we get to see you one day face to face in your kingdom of heaven.

 

Amen!

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