Christmas memories are remarkably resilient. Some from childhood revisit every year. My mother grew up on the Kansas plains during the Great Depression. The family farm had been lost before her birth. There were twelve children in her family. It’s hard for me to imagine such a life, yet her recollections of those early holidays frame what I know of hope.
At Christmas, my mother and her sisters would share their Christmas present, a single baby doll, though each child received an orange and some hard candy it could call its own. My mother immediately adds, “But that was a real treat! And Grandma made popcorn balls with Karo syrup, and we would all go to Midnight Mass together.”
Of course many others can recall hard candy holidays, when life didn’t flow with wealth yet didn’t lack for blessings. Perhaps, like my mother, they took them in stride. Children look ahead. Little hearts don’t stop hoping; they nurse it like hard candy.
But life ages hope. We lower our expectations of others, of ourselves, of life! It’s a hard-won, regrettable realism, because hope opens us to God. Along with faith and love, we call hope a theological virtue. It’s where the human touches the divine.
Like hard candy, hope should be savored, especially as we age. Indeed, a great test of faith arrives with the realization that our best days are behind us. It’s more than a question of counting years. We all miscalculate the time we have left, but, if touched by grace, we can accept the autumn that chills our lives.
Not King Ahaz. He no longer wanted the torment of hope. He understood what life offered, and he had drained as much from it as he could. Dreamers like Isaiah were a distraction, a waste of vital energy. Yet to seal away the heart from hope is to shut out God, which is why Isaiah responds with his hard candy promise. “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (7:14).
Saint Matthew records that Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit” (1:18). An Ahaz-heart hears such a claim to be as ludicrous as the promise it fulfills, yet the Virgin Birth is nothing less than the resurrection of Christ, working its way into our history. The Son is “descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1: 3-4).
Paul and Matthew launch their stories with claims that far exceed the calculable, the reasonable, even the comprehensible. Both summon human life to something beyond itself, to a hope that runs deeper than our years can satisfy.
Did my mother go to Midnight Mass with hope that next year would be better? Yet the little girl would become a mother, who gave dolls, rather than receive one that she could call her own. Surely her ability to savor those hard candy holidays has something to do with that Mass at Midnight. Christ’s Mass. It is an enchanted, turning time of night. Serious folk are ready for slumber, and the dreamers awake.
Isaiah 7: 10-14 Romans 1: 1-7 Matthew 1: 18-24