Walking to the back of the Church, I am completely exhausted though we’ve only made it to the homily. My one-and-a-half-year-old is pulling incessantly at my shirt demanding milk. I tuck myself inside the dark confessional making every attempt to disguise my presence from the outside. Despite my intended anonymity, the toddler repeatedly knocks her feet against the wooden wall. After a minute of nursing, she claws her way loose, pulling back the velvet curtain and sprinting forward. Feeling awkwardly exposed, I fumble to button my shirt. In the midst of the commotion, an older lady spritely pops out of the back pew and stands in front of my daughter. Without saying a word, she starts to pick up scattered leaves on the ground and sweetly directs my daughter to come and assist her. To my surprise, my child watches and eagerly complies. It became a silent game. I stare in wonder while the two work diligently together to clear the floor.
As they finish, I approach the lady and offer to throw the leaves away. Pouring the leaves into my palms, the image of her hands imprints in my memory. They are wrinkled, worn and covered in dirt. I realize I’ve seen her at Mass several times before carrying her belongings in garbage bags. After Mass, I go up to her expressing my gratitude for her act of kindness in helping my daughter to stay quiet. In response, she gives me the biggest smile. She tells me she loves children, older people and dogs because they are often neglected. Introducing myself, she shares her name in a thick accent, “Esperanza”. Hope. It is entirely appropriate. I offer her a ride, but she refuses. I later find out that the Church regularly provides food and a place for her to wash up. But other than that, she refuses any assistance.
During the season of Advent, the Church invites us to stay alert. Jesus says to his disciples, “Be vigilant at all times and pray” (Lk 21:36). Preparing for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation involves looking at our daily encounters with the eyes of faith. He seeks to reveal his presence to us often through a humble exchange of mercy and compassion. The Word has the potential to become flesh through an unexpected conversation, a simple act of kindness or the wisdom of the elderly. Christ gathers his people, proclaims good news to the poor, and transforms our lives through the vulnerability of a mother and child.
So many people lack hope right now. It’s underscored by the season when we are told to be “merry and bright” and cannot quite get there. It seems that our longing for something better is just a little more poignant now. Our focus shifts from a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes to filtered images we find on Instagram. Yet, hope does not originate from within us. We can only accept it as a pure gift. Hope involves letting go of the perfectionism that often creeps in during mid-December. It opens our hearts to purify our desire for heaven, trusting entirely on God and not relying on our own strength.
I imagine Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem involved plenty of embarrassment, laughter and acceptance. While these realities don’t appear as embossed images on Christmas cards, I’m sure Mary found plenty of room in her heart to treasure them. Mary’s surrender to the Holy Spirit gave her the confidence to fix her eyes on the final outcome rather than her specific circumstances. She was full of grace and full of steadfast hope. Despite the storms we may face in our lives, we can also trust, like Mary, with our anchor firmly secure in God’s will.
In the words of the beloved Christmas carol, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” My soul experienced a sense of worth in its meeting of Esperanza. I felt the love of Christ working through her and in me. The next line of the song speaks volumes, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” May we rejoice in the hope of heaven this Christmas, which is made possible by our sweet savior.
Prayer for hope
“Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church 1821, quoting St. Teresa of Avila