The New and the Now

I love New Year’s Day.  I love new beginnings, fresh starts, the first page of a clean new journal.  I love the idea of resolutions: the promise of new habits and the new happiness and order they will bring to my life.

I am not alone: last night, Times Square was filled to capacity, and millions more watched on television as the ball dropped, signaling an end to 2018 and the beginning of 2019.  It was a night of celebration and revelry; for many the penultimate holiday celebration, ushering in the promises of newness: New Year, New You, New Resolutions and hopes and dreams to plan and unpack.

Yet, just three weeks from today, January 21st, is Blue Monday, “The Most Depressing Day of the Year.”  By the third Monday of January, it seems, conditions have converged to create a cocktail of depression.  One is the dreary weather; another the post-holiday let down, and then the arrival of the post-holiday credit card bills.  (I am sure that fact that it is a Monday doesn’t help).  But the biggest factor?  By the third week in January most have failed to keep their new resolutions, and as a result have abandoned hope in their new happiness.

Today, January first and New Year’s Day, the Church presents for our contemplation the mystery of Mary, Mother of God.  At first, it seems something of a mismatch.  If there was anyone who didn’t need New Year’s resolutions, it was the Immaculate Conception.  Conceived without sin, she had no faults to renounce: she didn’t need to resolve to give up gossip, or gluttony, or even to give more of herself to God.  And it is hard to picture Our Lady promising to eat fewer carbs or even to exercise more: surely the fully pregnant mother who rode on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem didn’t need to get more fit, or to do more penance.

Yet when we entrust to Mary the Mother of God, our resolutions, we increase exponentially the likelihood of our keeping them.  First, because her intercession is invaluable in anything we wish to accomplish or offer.  Second, because in her role as Mother of God, she models for us how to keep them.

How can this be, for we who know too well the reality of sin?

The answer for the Christian is not a how or a what but a Who.  The child gestated in the womb of a Virgin, laid in the manger and held in her arms, first in Bethlehem and ultimately at Calvary, is Emmanuel: God is With Us.

God is With Us.  Not just in the new, but in the now.  Not with our future perfected or improved selves, or hobnobbing with the People We Ought To Be, but right now, in this imperfect moment.

Says Sister Wendy Beckett: “I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray.  If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe.  You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.”  Yikes.

It is in the Baby in the manger, the Baby cradled in Mary’s lap, nursing at her breast, that we can find the confidence to draw close to God without fear.

A baby changes everything.

Even a merely human baby has a remarkable power to effect change.  Voices are softened, curses omitted, touch becomes more gentle and loving.  Mothers addicted to nicotine or caffeine or alcohol in excess suddenly quit cold turkey when they become aware of the life growing within them.  Fathers who are “tough guys” melt into mush holding their child.  Parents can attest that what willpower could not accomplish, the needs of their child effects quickly: getting up earlier, giving up more of their time, sacrificing more of their money for someone other than self.

Father Richard Veras notes in his book Jesus of Israel: Finding Christ in the Old Testament that this experience of parenthood, this change effected by ENCOUNTER, is in fact the model of Christianity, not resolution fueled by willpower alone.   It is the encounter with Christ that changes us, that both inspires our right resolutions and empowers us to effect them.

If there is one resolution that will change your life definitively, it is to adopt the habit of daily prayer.  To spend some time, like Mary, reflecting on the mystery of Emmanuel.  To be present to the God that is always with you.  To allow Him to transform you, to make you new.  Sister Wendy again, not mincing words: “My filth crackles as He seizes hold of me.”

Gretchen Rubin, in her book Better than Before, writes about habits, and what helps and hinders them.  Much of her advice applies well to cultivating a habit of prayer.  Make the habit specific and concrete, she advises.  Set a specific time for prayer (morning habits are more likely to be kept, she notes).  Make the habit itself specific (for example, replace “to pray more” with “I will pray for fifteen minutes a day.”)  Make it a daily habit: “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in awhile.” (p.80)

Let Our Lady teach you how to pray.  (She taught Jesus, after all…)  Let her hand you the Christ Child to hold, even without words, and just be present and ponder the mystery.

Finally, as Gretchen Rubin notes, the time for a new habit is Now.  Not in tomorrow, which as the orphan Annie reminds us, is “always a day away.” The Good News is, literally, God is With Us Now.  Not in the museum of the past, nor in a perfect future, but in very moment in which we reside.

On this her feast day, let us invoke Mary’s maternal intercession as we pray for the two most important moments of our life: “Holy, Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.”

Madonna_with_child_and_angels

Image Credit:

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Blessed Are You

And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
—Luke 1:43

Although she did not know it, Elizabeth’s whole life had been leading up to this moment. For decades, she had lived in quiet piety in a small, ordinary village. Her whole married life she had prayed for a child, until her childbearing years had passed and she was an old woman. Through all this disappointment and seemingly unanswered prayers, Elizabeth never grew bitter toward God. She remained a faithful servant, bringing glory to God in her barrenness. Her hope was a sign of God’s grace to her people, for even in her desolation, His promises sustained her soul.

And then, to Elizabeth’s surprise, she was called to be a sign of God’s grace in a new, miraculous way: as the mother of John the Baptist, the one who would point the way to the Messiah. We see in today’s Gospel the account of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, when each had just received a wondrous and weighty mission from God. They greeted one another in exaltation, amazed at how God was using them to bear His grace into the world.

Elizabeth’s faithfulness to God in all the small moments of her life prepared her to speak those prophetic words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” After so many years in prayer, speaking with God and listening to His voice, she recognized with joy and humility that she was now in His presence. She marveled at the roles He had entrusted to her and to Mary—never comparing each other’s blessings and sorrows, but instead embracing the important role she had been given.

Each of us bears the image of God into the world, and each of us has an important calling to fulfill. As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, may we also be aware of God’s presence in the people around us. May we, like Elizabeth, call out with joy as we recognize the blessedness of our brothers and sisters, delighting in one another’s gifts.

When God Goes Missing

“Your mother and your brothers are standing outside
and they wish to see you.”
[Jesus] said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers
are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”—Luke 8:20-21

*            *            *

“Cie-cie, Santa’s dead!”  announced Little Nicholas solemnly.  I raised an eyebrow toward his mother, my friend Heidi.  “I was telling him about Saint Nicholas, and how he lived hundreds of years ago…” she explained with a sigh.  “Santa’s dead…” repeated Little Nicholas with a sigh of his own.

But the next day we went to the mall to ride the escalators and lo and behold, there was Santa Claus sitting by the Christmas tree.  “Look Mom!”  Little Nicholas exclaimed with great glee and equal volume.  “Santa is alive!  He’s risen from the dead and born again!”

I admit to a certain smug satisfaction: I am firmly in the pro-Santa camp, having fond memories of him and most of the other so-called “Fairy Tale Figures” of childhood.  I loved waking up on Christmas morning to find the surprises that Santa had left under the tree.  I loved waking up and searching for the chocolate eggs and jelly beans that the Easter Bunny had hidden for us around the house.  The Tooth Fairy was admittedly more forgetful and less reliable, but sooner or later I would awake with joy to find a quarter under the pillow—relative riches.

But there was one such figure from my childhood whose games of seek and find I did not enjoy: the Whisk-Away Where Witch.  I did not learn until later in life that the Whisk-Away Where Witch was selective in whose houses she visited, that in fact, I’ve yet to meet anyone else who even knew of her existence.  This did not stop her from having an active life here on Maple Avenue.

When something was left about (i.e. not “put away properly”) the witch would hide it.  The more one whined “Where is it?” (unless one was simultaneously cleaning up other things) the further away she would hide it.  Some things she would mysteriously return if and when a room was cleaned up.  Some never came back.  My china doll mysteriously showed up in my mother’s dresser years later…

I was grateful later in life to discover an ally in Saint Anthony.  But sometime when he seems to be slacking and my seeking fruitless, I am tempted to revert and blame darker forces.  But what of those times when it is God Himself who seems to go missing?

In today’s Gospel we see Mary and the brothers of Jesus are looking for Him, they want to speak with Him.  Instead Jesus says to the crowd “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of the Lord and act on it.”  We are quick as Catholics to rise to Mary’s defense against those who might suggest that Jesus was diminishing her—surely, nobody more perfectly heard and acted better than Mary, so we know that in fact He was not dissing her.

But we must not rush too quickly past the thoughts and feelings of Mary that day, as she stood on the outside, unable to see and speak with her son.   What must this have been like for her?  This was not the first time she was asked to give her assent to the will of God, nor was it the first time that she sought her son and could not reach Him.

Caryll Houselander writes of Mary’s experience of losing Christ in the Temple:

The striking thing about it is that it was not really a loss.  Our Lady did not lose Christ; He deliberately went away…Nor was this an isolated incident.  When she had found Him, after three days of utter bereavement.  He returned with her to Nazareth; but after what must have seemed a very short time to her, He left her again, and from that time forward her life was a continued seeking for Him.

We hear of her standing outside the crowd during His public life; of her following Him to the Cross, where the very life she had been given to Him would be taken away from her.  For a brief moment He was put in her arms again, and then taken up quickly (for there was urgency over the burial) and put into the tomb.

Why did Christ treat our Lady this way?…

…It was because Our Lady lived the life of all humanity.  Concentrated into her tiny history is the life story of the whole human race, the whole relationship of the redeemed human race with God…Naturally, then, she experienced this loss of the Child because it is an experience which we all have to go through, that our love may be sifted and purified.1

The thoughts of Our Lady are not recorded; we know only her assent.  That she said Yes to all that was to be given to her, all that was asked of her.  Her assent was without hesitation, without reserve.  Just as Christ fully entered into the human experience, so too our Lady lives her perfect assent in solidarity with the human condition.  And it is the human experience to feel the absence of God, to seek Him—in order to find Him.

When we think of Mary’s fiat and maternity we think of her holding Jesus—as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, and then perhaps in the Pieta moment under the cross, when she holds Him again, this time lifeless.  We do not often picture her arms empty, reaching, on the outside of Christ’s life.  But this too is a key point of her fiat, of her maternity not just of Christ, but of us.

There would have been no doubt of Our Lady’s knowing her son’s face; but often, in the dusk, she must have searched for it in the face of another boy, and the boy would have wondered who this woman was and why she leaned down and searched his face; he could not have guessed that the day would come when the Mother of God would really find her son in every boy and every boy would be able to give Christ back to her….

…Later on, she was again seeking for Christ, this time among the crowd that thronged round Him in His public life.  She is among those who are trying to get close to Him; therefore, she is among the sick, the crippled, the blind, the poorest beggars—outcasts of every description.  For such are the people who follow Christ in every age. 2

If we can take comfort in Mary’s search for God, in feeling His absence, we can take it also in her faith, and in her finding.

Surely when on Holy Saturday He is again missing, her arms again empty, and she cannot find Him; surely in that missing and absence she recalls His words of long ago telling her that even then, He is about His Father’s business.


Notes:

1 Houselander, Caryll.  The Reed of God.  (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2006), pp. 109-110.

2 Ibid, p. 140