By Elise Harris
For Pope Francis, one of most needed virtues of modern time is hope, which is something he said must never be abandoned no matter how hard life gets, and which is often expressed in the simple act of a smile.
Referring to the “dramatic moment” of Israel's exile in the desert, Pope Francis said Dec. 7 that this time was especially hard for the people because they had lost everything, and felt “abandoned and without hope.”
The desert is a difficult place to live, he said, but noted that it is precisely inside the desert that the people of Israel are able to walk in order to return “not only to their homeland, but to return to God, and to hope and smile again.”
“When we are in darkness and difficulty the smile doesn't come, but there is the hope that teaches us to smile on that path to find God,” Francis said, noting that one of the trademarks of those who break away from God is “the absence of the smile, the smile of the hope of finding God.”
Perhaps these people know how to “have a good laugh” or make jokes, but they are missing the smile that only God knows how to give, the Pope continued.
Life, he said, “is often a desert, it's hard to walk in it, but if we entrust ourselves to God it can become beautiful and wide like a highway.”
“It's enough to never lose hope, it's enough to continue to believe, always, despite everything,” he said, noting that often when we find ourselves in front of a child, “there is a spontaneous smile because a child is hope.”
“Let us also smile even if it was a difficult day, because we see the hope.”
Pope Francis spoke to the thousands of pilgrims present for his Wednesday general audience in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall.
After concluding his yearlong catechesis on mercy during the Jubilee, Francis began a new series on Christian hope, which he noted was timely given the fact that he started it during the Advent season.
Hope, he said, is needed “so much in these times that appear so dark, in which at times we feel lost in front of the evil and violence that surrounds us, in front of the pain of our brothers and sisters.”
Noting how many can feel lost, discouraged and even “powerless” in front of a darkness that seems like it will never end, the Pope stressed that “we mustn't let hope abandon us, because God with his love walks with us, he doesn't leave us alone,” but has instead “conquered evil and opened to us the path of life.”
Francis pointed to the words spoken by Isaiah in the days' reading, taken from Chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah when he prophet offers words of comfort and urges the people to prepare the way of Lord in the wilderness.
Pope Francis said that as a Father, God consoles his children by “raising up comforters” who are tasked with encouraging the people by announcing that their tribulation and pain is over, and that their sin has been forgiven.
“This is what heals the afflicted and frightened heart,” he said, adding that for the people, consolation begins with the possibility of walking along the path God carves out for them in the desert, which is a “new path, rectified and viable” which allows them to return to their homeland.
The people to whom Isaiah speaks were living “the tragedy of exile,” but now hear that they will be able to return to their homeland on a wide and level road, without the obstacles that often make the journey “arduous,” he said.
Preparing this path, Francis said, “means to prepare a path of salvation and liberation from every obstacle and stumbling block.”
When Isaiah says that he is the voice “of one crying out in the desert: prepare the way of the Lord,” the Pope noted that it's a voice that seems to be crying out in a place where “no one is listening” and which mourns “the loss owed to the crisis of faith.”
However, he stressed that the true story is not the one made by the powerful who are seen by the world, “but rather the one made by God together with his little ones.”
Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly and “marked by infertility,” and Mary was a young virgin betrothed to Joseph, while the shepherds who met the infant Jesus “were despised and didn't count for anything,” the Pope observed.
“It is the small ones, made great by their faith, the little ones who know how to continue to hope,” he said, adding that it is they who are able to transform “the desert of exile, of desperate loneliness, of suffering, into a level road on which to walk to meet the glory of the Lord.”
“Let us therefore teach hope, let us look forward faithfully to the coming of the Lord and whatever the desert of our lives, it will become a flowery garden.”