We can all agree that 2021 has been a most difficult year. Some have succumbed to despair, while others are still searching for hope. We experience the tension between the weight of gravity and the lightness of grace. Saint John Paul II was well aware of this tension. “Do not abandon yourself to despair,” he implored us, “We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song” (Angelus, November 30, 1986). This “song” is appropriate not only for Christmas, but for every day in the liturgical calendar. At the same time, the former pontiff emphasized the critical importance of hope: “I plead with you, never, ever, give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid” (In My Own Words).
Hope and despair are opposite poles. Therefore, they differ as day and night, being and nothingness. Despair is not a virtue. It is a concession. It is a moment when a person gives up, calls it quits, surrenders to the dark night of oblivion. No resources are required in order to despair. In fact, despair is the rejection of the resources that are still available to us. Despair is a choice to stop living before our life has finished its course. It is an end, not a new beginning.
Despair is not a solution; it is a temptation. And temptations can be resisted. We sometimes think that hope is what we might expect. Yet, Hope is far more than expectation. We expect the sun to rise each morning. But, if we wake up sick, we hope that we will get well. When our life does not run smoothly, hope enters the picture. The greater the difficulties are that we face, the greater must be our hope. “Hope never spread her golden wings,” Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “but in unfathomable seas”. In a less eloquent manner, Frank Leahy, former coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, would tell his players that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”.
St. Thomas More’s encouraging words—“The times are never so bad that a good man can’t live in them”—are never out of season. An ocean of water cannot submerge a ship unless that vessel takes on water. A pandemic of problems cannot cause despair unless a person chooses to take it on board.
During the Christmas Season, joyful carols bring to our ears encouraging words that are ambassadors of hope. The words “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ, our savior was born on Christmas Day. To save us all from Satan’s pow’r when we were gone astray” urges us to reject dismay, which is a half-way house to despair. The theme of hope overcoming despair recurs again and again in Yuletide carols. In O Holy Night we sing “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘till he appeared and the soul felt its worth, a thrill of hope the weary world rejoices”. Human beings are remarkably resilient creatures and have survived countless trials throughout history. Laughter, in addition to singing, are effective weapons against despair. They constitute proof that we can rise above our problems. We can laugh at nonsense and sing of hope. We also have community, church, heroes of past and present, great art, and God to assist us in these anxious times.
We survey the moral, political, and even religious landscapes of our era and are tempted to throw up our arms in despair. Our leaders are not leading, our morals are in tatters, and our economy is on a downward slope. The rates of abortion, crime and euthanasia are increasing. Yet, there is alive in us a spark of hope that can be enkindled by God into a flame. Christmas time centers on that hope, which gives us the strength to maintain self-possession, to resist the temptation to despair, and to continue on in spite of life’s difficulties. A Merry Christmas must also be one that is redolent with Hope.