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Nostalgia & Hope: On Advent and Christmas

One Advent, when I was a young adult, a Black Baptist with Jewish roots, a White Baptist whose father was a pastor and a Mennonite man who was active in the peace movement, helped me find my way back to Catholicism. I was living in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel and at the foot of Lehigh University.

That December lives fresh in my memory as a time when Scripture, liturgy and dedication to service came to life for me. My three friends could quote chapter and verse readily — while also applying the Bible to everyday events and daily news. Almost as a gesture of self-defense, I started reading the Gospels and Psalms. I also found, just around the corner from my alley-way rental, a vibrant parish where the Spanish Masses somehow illuminated the continuum between “O Ven, O Ven, Emanuel” and the outreach provided by the parish’s used clothing store and food program.

Every December, I get nostalgic for that Advent. I was teaching and engaged in doctoral studies and had given up the car that I could no longer afford. I ate a lot of hotdogs, cheese, eggs, canned vegetables, greens, beans and rice. My long walks took me up the hills of a tidy campus and down into the gritty, cindered streets of a barrio. Some of the storefronts were strewn with broken glass. Drunks and derelicts lounged on curbs and on the steps of a creaky old hotel. Amid all that, Jesus came alive for me.

The ambience of the neighborhood and the strong faith of my friends somehow reawakened in me fond memories of the Advent wreath that always graced our kitchen table at home during this season. I remembered how reverently we displayed a Nativity set on top of our upright piano. As a teen, I had sung in our church choir and could replay the words of Advent hymns and the Christmas introit in Latin. In a phase of youthful skepticism and rebellion, I had decided that all of this was charming but mythic — but the Scriptures, the Puerto Rican neighbors’ faith and my trio of friends pushed me to look again.

Miraculously, it all began to ring true: the wisdom of the Bible, the birth of the Messiah, his teachings and healings, the death and Resurrection. Little by little, I found myself impelled to make Christ central — and as real to others as he had become for me.

I continue to indulge in nostalgic Advent and Christmas memories as I review the history of my vocation. But I also remember a caution which I once heard: those who have more memories than dreams are edging into disappearance and death. This was meant as counsel to institutions and to persons. So I find myself checking on how devoted I am to the hopes and dreams inspired by our Savior and stoked by our Church.

As an educator currently of aspiring deacons and lay persons in ministry, I have hopes for a new breed of Church leaders who are on fire for the Lord. As a diocesan worker involved in ecumenical and interfaith efforts, I hope that as people of good will, we can continue to band together for human and humane solutions to ongoing problems. As an ardent pro-lifer, I hope that we are truly able to change hearts and not merely rely on legislative actions and judicial decisions to save the lives of the unborn. As an American, I hope that we somehow find a way through the present political morass and put persons and principles above party loyalties.

In short, I hope that the saving grace offered by our Catholic faith propels us into eternity with God and brings the qualities and the character of God’s Kingdom into the here and now.

Most of all, this Christmas, I hope that humanity will be stirred by all of the promises to which the birth of the Christ Child has called us. Only if we recall that Christ stepped into our midst, rose from the dead and is with us still, will we realize what the name Emmanuel means God-with-us. We need his loving care, his magnanimity and his glory more than ever. We hope and dream and do our best to bring God’s with-ness, his presence in our midst, to life — for the good of souls and for life of the world.


Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.