In a recent talk which Archbishop Charles Chaput gave at the University of Notre Dame 2016 Bishops’ Symposium, he referred to an illustration from a thirteenth century Bible which he had recently received from a friend. The Archbishop described it as a depiction of Mary punching the devil in the nose. I was so taken by this unusual illustration that I looked it up and found a copy of it. Mary is standing, as usual, very graciously, but her right hand is extended with her hand clutched in a fist upon the devil’s horned head, socking him right between the eyes. My own perception of the illustration is that Mary, who has a faint smile on her face, is actually looking at the devil with pity and is extending him more of a love tap than a knockout punch. With so much involved in the artwork, the understanding and interpretation of it, I thought it would make an interesting Christmas card. However, I refrained from sending one.
The image of Mary confronting the devil in this manner truly is at the heart of what Christmas is all about. The devil is real and through his evil wiles has disrupted the loving order of creation which God had intended. God made man and woman in His image and likeness to be like Him and to live His joy in love. God created the human person to show that His power is in His love and not in His dominion. However, Satan tempted man and woman away from God's loving plan and deceived them into believing that love was not the basis of creation but power. That original sin of choosing power over love as a means to find fulfillment began the snowball effect of evil begetting evil. God's response was not one of power to destroy the human person but one of love to redeem that person. After years of sending His message of love, which was continually rejected, God finally sent His Son into the world to show His love. His Son came into the world, not as a powerful worldly king, but as an infant child born of the Virgin Mary in the poorest of conditions. God truly became one of us in all things but sin. He experienced everything we do, including our helplessness, but always so that He could raise us from that helplessness especially caused by sin.
The reality of sin eventually took the life of the Virgin Mary's child - the Son of God. The fullness of the Lord’s kingship was revealed upon the Cross which He freely accepted in order to raise us with Him. Indeed, the devil has been conquered by the Incarnation and by the Cross and Resurrection. But he still is able to lure the person away from God's love and to wreak havoc through the false promise of power. We have seen this throughout history and we continue to experience it today. It is only those who have faith, hope and love that are able to be touched by the goodness of God and to find the meaning of life as God intended it. The Birth of the Savior is what strengthens our faith, hope and love. While we celebrate all three virtues on Christmas, it is hope that touches us in a way which causes us to see beyond the tragedy of sin and evil.
As we look at our world and our nation today, we experience the reality of the devil and his attempt to promote power as the foundation of life in so many frightening ways. Terrorism, religious persecution, discrimination, exclusion, hateful speech, and so many other tools of the devil are clearly before us. We were all very disturbed by a national election campaign within our nation which has caused such great confusion and the promotion of power over love on every side and every level. There was a news report immediately following Black Friday, a day of sales to encourage people to get into the Christmas spirit and give the right gift. The report showed several incidents of people fighting, punching each other and running rampant in order to get the sale item before anyone else. It was a sad display, in the Christmas season, of the reality of evil which ignores the power of the love of God who was born as one of us but chooses brute power in its place. It is only Christmas that gives us an answer that is able to see beyond the evil that has been conquered but needs to be completely rejected. As we look to the Christ Child on Christmas, we look to Him with hope for a better world into which He has come. We have hope that the world as God created it will come about and it will come about not with power alone but with the power of His love.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is a sterling example of a man of hope within our world today which is so much in need of healing through hope. He has indeed attracted to himself many Catholics, as well as men and women of other faiths and even those who do not believe in God, because of the hope that he exudes. He has shown his hope, not by a knockout punch of power but with the love tap of God which is the essence of all power. During this month of December, the Pope has spoken on the importance of and the need for hope within our lives especially as we celebrate the Birth of the Savior. Pope Francis emphasized how much we need hope, "in these times that appear bleak, in which at times we feel lost when faced with the evil and the violence that surround us, before the suffering of so many of our brothers. ... We feel lost and somewhat discouraged, as we find ourselves helpless to act and it seems that this darkness will never end."
The Pope emphasized that it is not optimism that is needed but hope. Hope and optimism are not the same. He stressed that optimism can disappoint when what we look forward to does not occur. However hope never disappoints because, no matter what happens, we realize that God is with us, walks with us, is at our side and never leaves us alone. Christ defeated evil, even though evil can still influence those without hope. Pope Francis shared the insight that hope is what causes people to smile. He observed that people can be capable of great laughter and exuberant behavior but are not able to smile because hope is lacking. How much we see that during the Christmas season where there is so much feigned merrymaking, false excitement and unrealistic expectations but so little true joy. Again, the disappointing scenes of Black Friday in which people were trying to outdo each other in a manner that resulted in violence are evidence of this. It is only the true hope of Mary, smiling calmly at the devil, which conquers his evil through the love of God and not the violence of power. She smiles at the devil's face fixed with angry revelry. As the Holy Father emphasized, "One of the first things that happens to those who drift away from God is that they are people without a smile. ... The smile gives only hope: it is the smile of the hope of finding God."
During the season of Advent and Christmas we frequently hear readings, both at Mass and in the Divine Office, from the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah above all is the great messenger of hope. He speaks of the real power of hope to overcome every obstacle in life especially in view of God's promise to be with us which we celebrate at Christmas. As we experience the distress within our world and country today, as well as the many personal sufferings of illness, death and family misunderstandings, Isaiah's words give us hope through the promise of Christ who has come. At one point Isaiah proclaims, "Youths grow tired and weary, the young stumble and fall, but those who hope in the Lord will regain their strength, they will sprout wings like eagles, though they run they will not grow weary, though they walk they will never tire" (Is 40:30-31). It is faith in God that gives us strength and purpose. What sustains us is hope in God whose power is in His love and who became one of us so that He would conquer evil and be with us in all things. What gives us joy is hope in God who gives us life now and will lead us to life eternal where every evil will truly be banished.
May Christmas be a time of great hope for us especially in this time of history and in all of the problems of our own personal lives. May Mary, who gave birth to the Son of God, look upon us with her smile of hope – that same smile which overcomes evil with love. May we know the joy of Christ and may our strength be not in youthful energy, as good a gift as that is, but in hope in the Lord so that we will continue to run and not grow weary.
A Blessed Christmas, filled with true hope, to all!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
December 23, 2016