Shorter days, crowded store aisles and the scent of treats around homes and offices quickly remind us that Christmas is drawing near. Christians can find themselves in a bit of a spiritual tug-of-war as society urges us to begin celebrating Christmas as soon as the first bag of Halloween candy is discounted 50%. In this frenzied rush toward Christmas, we can find ourselves consumed with lists, menus and decorating and yet neglect the most important preparation—our hearts.
Advent, that season that calls us to prepare our hearts, is essential if we are to live joyfully with the hope that only comes with belief in the mystery of the incarnation—God became man to save us and set us free.
But right now, hope and joy seem to be in tragically short supply. Understandably, the last couple of years have been extremely trying and it’s impossible to be filled with joy if we don’t have true hope. The darkness of despair can begin to take root and appear insurmountable.
At the end of October, I read in this paper one of the most sobering and heartbreaking articles I’ve come across. It has haunted me ever since as it starkly reflected the reality that hopelessness has reached epidemic proportions.
The article cited the recent findings from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey developed by the CDC. According to the article, the survey found that record numbers of Montana high school students self-reported symptoms of depression over the past year and nearly 1 in 10 reported having attempted suicide over that same time period. That’s not 10% of students experiencing suicidal ideation, though that would be more than alarming. No, according to the article, roughly 1 in 10 said they had ATTEMPTED suicide.
Reading those statistics took my breath away.
One measure of a healthy society is the degree to which our children are flourishing. But no one can flourish without hope. The results of this study should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. Our children are crying out for help. Are we listening? We need to ask ourselves, as a society and individually, what are we going to do about this? How do we grow hope within these young people?
We first must be a people of hope because we cannot give what we ourselves lack. Our culture promotes the illusion that meaning and self-fulfillment are found first and foremost in the maximization of personal pleasure and autonomy. Yet, God calls us to communion with him by inviting us to make our very lives a gift for others. In so doing, we find purpose in life and, more fundamentally, the authentic hope born of love.
None of this is meant to marginalize or ignore the serious mental health issues so prevalent in our communities or disregard the acute challenges surrounding access to adequate mental health services. Those are very real problems. But hopelessness is a real crisis too and it demands a response.
Christmas reminds us that love is the light that dispels darkness and invites us to bring forth that light to others. God became man, a real man, Jesus Christ, who walked this earth flesh and bone as we are and died as we all will someday. This is a radical thing for us to believe, and believing in this Jesus Christ compels us to completely transform the way we live. Christians aren’t called to simply believe Jesus, we are called to believe IN him, embracing a new way of living that transforms us and the world. We are called to love as he loves—incarnationally.
As the study I mentioned so sadly reflects, our world is starving for hope. So many of us are experiencing a type of spiritual malnourishment, filling our minds and hearts with things incapable of satisfying the deepest longings of our souls—money, pleasure, entertainment, professional achievement. And, a faith that is reduced to some form of intellectualism and sees Christianity as primarily a set of ideas or beliefs to which one must assent, serves as no antidote to the allure of the empty promises of the world. Those beliefs, those doctrines must inform and animate us in a way of life spurring us on to incarnate our faith, living it out through our relationships and not simply as an intellectual exercise.
This is the kind of faith that witnesses to hope.
This Advent, let us prepare our hearts well and unplug from the noise and fear that surround us. God is inviting us to embrace a love that is concrete, personal, limitless and the most real thing that has ever existed. Now is the time to open wide the doors of our hearts and receive this love so that we may give this love, and serve as hope for our broken world.
This article originally appeared in the December 18, 2021 edition of the Helena Independent Record.