“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;/ and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” The words from Gerard Manley Hopkins’, SJ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” seem to give the quintessential description of our mortal world. The words of Ecclesiastes also come to mind: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). Suffering pervades our world under many forms: good friends suffer from difficult situations, family members experience sicknesses, and sometimes even those we love die tragically in the prime of life. The moral foundations of our nation are crumbling: from abortion to same-sex unions defined as “marriage,” we have fallen from a real understanding of virtuous living. Philosophically, we are experiencing in reality Francis Bacon’s pronouncement, as quoted by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “Victoria cursus artis super naturam (the triumph of art over nature)” (SS 16). Yet, as we approach the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a reflection on Pope Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi will perhaps remind us that hope does not lie in this world that is passing away but in the Beatific Vision with our Lord and the experience of the inner life of the Trinity.
Benedict XVI writes, “Faith is the substance of hope” (SS 10). Here he is referencing Hebrews 11:1, which states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Why is it that we should have such firm belief in the things that we cannot see when the things we do see are often deteriorating and deceiving? Reflecting on the Magi following the Star of Bethlehem as a sort of “redemption of time,” Benedict writes, “It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe” (SS 5). The “laws of matter,” meaning the laws that govern nature and the motion and change of things, do not simply happen because of chance or fate. Rather, a personal God, a God that loves man, creatures, and the world, governs the workings of creation. He continues: “It is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person” (Ibid). Therefore, because we know that a Person—a substance, or hypostasis—is governing the universe, we can have hope; we do not have to resign ourselves to fate, but rather, we can know that our ultimate destiny belongs to a Person who is Love.
To that end, Benedict writes, “In Christ, God has revealed himself. He has already communicated to us the ‘substance’ of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty” (SS 9). As such, the Magi following the star of Bethlehem reveal that there is more in this world than cold and cruel nature, and this “something more” is revealed in the Incarnation, for Christ is not an unknown deity ruling over the earth but a fleshly, living Person. Benedict points out that knowledge of this Person helps us to step outside the confines of nature to discover this Person. The way that we can know Christ is through the liturgies and sacraments of the Church, especially the Eucharist, in which we are able to receive the very substance of our hope. Through our tangible experience of Him in the sacraments, Christ gives purpose to all our actions, for, as Benedict writes, quoting St. Augustine, “Ultimately, we want only one thing—‘the blessed life,’ the life which is simply life, simply ‘happiness’” (SS 11). In Christ, we have a glimpse of this blessed life, for His life is a window into the eternal life that we shall experience.
Moreover, because Christ, as God Incarnate, suffered and died for man on the Cross, He has likewise redeemed not only time and the universe but also man’s daily experience of suffering. The very means that bring death and depression can be our way to eternal happiness and hope, for suffering, as Benedict writes, is one of the settings for learning and practicing hope. In reference to Christ, Benedict says, “Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything a hymn of praise” (SS 37). With Christ, there is new meaning to suffering, which would otherwise lead us into the despair and nihilism of our modern world. Because Christ has descended from Heaven and become one of us, being born in a stable and then suffering and dying on the Cross, our suffering is redeemable. In offering our suffering in union with Christ’s own suffering, the events of this world are not the objects of chance, but the very substance of our hope in Christ. We can have hope despite our sufferings because we know that Christ has victory over death, and therefore, we are able to sing praise to Him with all the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14).
Therefore, as we approach with silent wonder the great feast of the birth of Christ, let us remember the words of Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi, which reveal that hope is not defined by the material goods of this world, but is an entirely supernatural hypostasis, for our hope lies in the redeeming power of Christ’s love. Let us not be deceived by the world and modernity, because, “It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love” (SS 26, emphasis added). Man is redeemed because “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” and this is the mystery that we will celebrate in a particular way on Christmas Day (John 1:14). In remembering the supernatural origin of our hope, we will be able to say with Hopkins in the concluding words of “God’s Grandeur,” that, “Nature is never spent…because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”