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A season of 'penitential hope'

English Spanish Dolores Hanley McDiarmid Profile

Each year it seems like the signs of Christmas arrive earlier than the previous year. At the end of September, two giant red reindeer appeared on the lawn of our local mall and one craft store displayed Christmas decorations, reminding us of the approaching holidays and time to begin shopping.

Ordinarily I would express my displeasure of rushing into the Christmas season in the month of September, but this year is different, probably due to the challenges we have been facing as we live and deal with COVID-19.

I, too, found myself thinking about Christmas during September and thinking about what cards I would be sending this year. Like many people these days, I wanted to think of something that made me feel happy and Christmas was my answer.

It is normal to want to be happy and want to look ahead to a happier time because we are a people of hope! Speaking of hope, as Catholics our season of hope —Advent — began November 29.

During this unusual time in our lives, I wonder if there are changes we might consider making during Advent? Is it time for a paradigm shift on how we view and use our time now and perhaps throughout the year?

For decades, I have thought of Advent primarily as a time of waiting or expectation focused on faith, peace, love and joy. I was surprised when I learned there is also a penitential aspect of Advent. It is a time of ‘penitential hope’ as opposed to the ‘penitential sorrow’ that we experience during the Lenten season.

The concept of ‘penitential hope’ was difficult for me to understand until I spent time reflecting on Luke’s Gospel (2:1-7) that speaks of the lives of Mary and Joseph weeks prior to the birth of Jesus. It was not a convenient time for them, and they may have been uncertain, but they had to leave the comforts of their home and family to travel through unknown territory in order take part in the census.

Their journey involved self-sacrifice. And they had the added responsibility of finding a place for Jesus to be born. No doubt they needed to trust God to protect them, to provide a warm place to stay each night and for sustenance to maintain their health. It was no vacation!

This is when I began to look at Advent differently and gain a better understanding of ‘penitential hope.’ This was Mary and Joseph’s Advent. They had to make sacrifices, but they looked forward with hope and joy, anticipating Jesus' birth.

It does seem like Advent should include both self-sacrifice and anticipation. How much of the self-sacrificing are we including in our Advent journey?

Imagine you are accompanying Mary and Joseph on their Advent journey. For us Catholics, the focus of these four weeks should be self-sacrifice. Not until the very end should we celebrate the birth of our Savior.

I just wonder if we have been swept into the tidal wave of the commercialized Christmas, where our focus seems to be on shopping for multitudes of gifts rather than traveling both the anticipatory and sacrificial journey with Mary and Joseph.

Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic, and the limitations it has placed upon us, can play a positive role for us this Advent. Could we be inclined to spend more time reflecting upon the journey of Mary and Joseph, and include self-sacrifices on our Advent journey, thus experiencing ‘penitential hope'? Maybe we get our tree a little closer to Christmas Day and decorate closer to Christmas rather than like everyone else? Maybe we spend less money on gifts and use that money to help people who are unemployed, sick or homeless? After all, as Catholics, shouldn’t we do things and act differently than the secularized world?

As I continued to reflect on the concept of ‘penitential hope’, I began wondering whether, as Catholic Christians, we should look at our life journey as one of ‘penitential hope’. If, in our lives, we follow the teachings of Jesus, we must expect that we will have crosses to bear.

But at the same time, we are reminded to be hopeful. Our eyes need to be focused on the prize waiting for us at the end of our earthly journey: eternal life in heaven. It is then that we will find and experience the joy that we have been longing for, the joy we have been praying and hoping for.

I wish you a holy Advent and a holy life lived with ‘penitential hope’!

Dolores Hanley McDiarmid
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Comments from readers

Kathy Werthman - 12/07/2020 12:09 PM
A thought-provoking and beautiful reflection, Dolores. Thank you.
Valli Leone - 12/07/2020 09:54 AM
Thanks, Dolores, for the very thought-provoking article on penitential hope. With every sign of Christmas that appears on the streets, in the stores and in our homes, I am reminded that as we “deck the halls,”we should also be decorating our hearts with that very hope that you speak about. I agree that Covid-19 has sent many of us into a dizzying spin over the past year. Yet, it has also given us pause to reflect on every good and wonderful blessing that comes from trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. It gives us time to refocus our values and our personal beliefs. Sacrificial self-denial and a spirit of generosity is also in the air. Alleluia! May we all have a very Merry, Merciful Christmas—filled with penitential HOPE! 🔆🎄🔆

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