December marks the official start of winter in most of the Western world. Yet, it is not the only winter that the world is facing. Demographers increasingly speak of a “demographic winter” wherein birth rates fall below replacement in most industrialized countries.
There are many causes of this phenomenon, as Pope Benedict XVI noted in 2006. He pointed out, though, that the “ultimate roots can be seen as moral and spiritual; they are linked to a disturbing deficit of faith, hope and, indeed, love. To bring children into the world calls for self-centered eros to be fulfilled in a creative agape rooted in generosity and marked by trust and hope in the future.”
Indeed, such a decline is nothing short of a lack of hope. A materialistic mindset replaces hope in a real future with something else: an immediate desire for consumer goods and status. This mindset is sadly brought home to us at this time each year, as Christmas seems each year to become more of a consumer season than a Christian one.
In his apostolic exhortation on the Christian family, Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II observed: “In the richer countries … excessive prosperity and the consumer mentality, paradoxically joined to a certain anguish and uncertainty about the future, deprive married couples of the generosity and courage needed for raising up new human life: thus life is often perceived not as a blessing, but as a danger from which to defend oneself” (6).
A society with no hope in the future and a resulting lack of openness to life is, not surprisingly, a society that would trade a celebration of birth for one of consumerism.
A purely materialistic view of Christmas — even more noticeable this year as recession-affected merchants desperately seek to improve their profits — can be a symptom of this same hopeless outlook on life.
Of course, as Christians, we have the reminder of our hope in salvation that comes with Christ’s birth at Christmas. With this event, the process of our own redemption is made possible. Christ’s birth — as the angels told the shepherds — heralds “peace on earth to men of good will.”
That is quite a contrast to the anxiety of the consumer mentality.
In addition to Christmas, the Church gives us other feasts in December that highlight hope, love and new life.
On the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we remember the hope that Mary brought — and continues to bring — to this entire hemisphere. She appeared as a pregnant woman to a defeated people in search of meaning. Through her message that each person is loved, she brought the indigenous Mexicans to the fullness of hope in her son Jesus Christ.
Finally, we celebrate life within the family on the feast of the Holy Family, where Christ spent 30 of the 33 years of his life. It is a good opportunity for us to reflect on our own lives and on the way we bring up our children.
The Christian has hope — on earth and in heaven. Those who put consumerism first have only anxiety and possessions, which do nothing to decrease the restlessness of our hearts. As St. Augustine famously wrote, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. This rest in God gives the Christian hope, while the consumer has only yesterday’s purchase.
Hope is no small matter. In 2007, Pope Benedict wrote an entire encyclical on it. His words deserve serious thought: “If we cannot hope for more than is effectively attainable at any given time … our lives will soon be without hope” (Spe Salvi, 35).
Our hope must be based not simply on the here and now, but on the hereafter; and not just on ourselves, but on the one who made us.
Life, children and family are all founded on love. During Advent 2007, Pope Benedict reminded us that “hope, like faith, is demonstrated in love.”
As we celebrate the feasts of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Christmas and the Holy Family this month, let us remember that they are feasts of hope precisely because they celebrate Christ’s life and loving family, and his greatest gift of love to us: our salvation.