By Fr. George Welzbacher
December 23, 2007
To each and every one of you, to all of our parishioners and to all the friends of our parish, and to your loved ones, I offer my prayerful wishes for a blessed Christmas, one filled with the peace of soul that comes--and comes only-- from a faithful and loving service to Christ our Lord!
Christmas is above all else the feast of hope, the feast of the Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness cannot overwhelm! How appropriate, then, was the timing of the publication of Pope Benedict's new encyclical (his second) Saved by Hope (Spe Salvi), released to us and to the world at the beginning of Advent, on the threshold of our celebration of the Feast of Hope! Spe Salvi is a masterful exposition of a powerful truth, and I will be commenting on it more than once in the months ahead.
In today's Pastor's Page, however, I would like to narrow the focus of my comments to Pope Benedict's reflections on the role that hope plays at the time when we have most need of hope, that is to say, when we reach the final hours of our life on earth.
Unlike those whom St. Paul describes as "without hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12) those who have accepted Christ's call to become His disciples are not left destitute as death draws near. Rather, Christ, who has Himself experienced what it means to die, and to die in the most painful and shattering way known to man, is there at our side to walk with us each step of the way through death's dark valley to the Kingdom of Light. Here is a sampling of Pope Benedict's words on Christ as the hope of the dying.
* * * * *From the Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI on Christian Hope: Spe Salvi:
* * * * *6. The sarcophagi [elaborately carved stone coffms] of the early Christian era illustrate this concept visually-in the context of death, in the face of which the question concerning life's meaning becomes unavoidable. The figure of Christ is represented on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd.
Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human-the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher's traveling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth the itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both the educated and the simple found in Christ: He tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore He is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death. Only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.
The same idea becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want...Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me..." (Ps 23 : 1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through; He himself has walked his path, He has descended into the kingdom of death, He has conquered death, and He has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with Him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with His "rod and His staff comforts me", so that "I fear no evil" (cf Ps 23 : 4)-this was the new "hope" that arose over the life of believers.
* * * * *With the birth of the Christ Child a Light has sprung up in this world's darkness. In His very own Person Christ brings us "God in the world" and therewith hope, a hope that is secure, and for those who persevere, a hope that leads to triumph, May that hope reign within your hearts throughout this blessed season and throughout the New Year!