On this first day of the new year, the church asks us to pray once again for peace. It isn’t that we don’t pray for peace at any other time of the year, because we do. But as we cross the threshold into a new year, we are always eager to leave the sorrows and struggles of the past behind. We will acknowledge our blessings and successes, but the sorrows and struggles sometimes loom larger. Yet are we truly as eager to embrace an uncertain future as we are to leave the familiar past behind? Time and again, we find ourselves clinging to comfortable attitudes and patterns of behavior that hinder our personal, emotional, and spiritual growth. We hold on to our selfish distrustful attitudes rather than welcome inner healing and reconciliation. We prefer our old grudges and resentments to taking a risk and being open to new dialogue. We make the excuse that we have been optimistic in the past. A few times we have made a heroic effort, giving up time, energy, and resources in pursuit of elusive goals. We have even given peace a chance. But we have not seen a satisfactory return for all our hard work. So while we continue to wish one another prosperity and good fortune, we are only paying lip service. Our withdrawal of optimism, effort, and investment in the promise of a bright future is a sham. I propose we say what we really mean – a miserable rotten new year to you all! Or else we truly pour new life and energy into our well-wishing, and renew our efforts to make that bright future a reality. Not every attempt will be successful; but no success comes without an attempt. If you want to win the lottery, you’ve got to buy a ticket. And if you want to increase your odds, you can’t quit trying.
The virgin of Nazareth sits holding her child in her arms. She is mesmerized by his beauty. Not only is this child a wonder unto himself, a physically tangible little person, utterly helpless, absolutely dependent, with cute little hands and cute little feet. (I imagine Mary would have thought so.) This child is also the fulfillment of a heavenly vision’s announcement from not too long ago. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” But the mother is too absorbed in wonder of the child to recall in detail what the vision said about him. “He will be the Son of the Most High God … to whom is given the throne of David his father … to rule the house of Jacob forever … and of his kingdom there will be no end.” She cannot comprehend the implications of that vision right this very moment. She can only see before her a child, her baby boy. What will become of him? What great deeds will these little hands accomplish? Where in the world will these little feet take him? She had so much to show him, so much to teach him. Well, there are the basics of human survival: nourishment, hygiene, self-preservation. Then there are the things that give meaning to human existence: relationships, communication, knowledge and learning, music and art, recreation and sports, travel and adventure, making a living and making a life, contributing to society, and leaving a lasting legacy. Then there are the things unique to time and place: meeting the family, passing on the faith, building a loving home.
So much to do; where to begin? Whenever a parent holds their child in their arms, especially when the child is calm and content, and many of you have, I can only imagine what runs through your minds. You can lose yourself in wonder and awe. You have so much love for that child, you would do anything to shield her from harm, and give him the best life has to offer, and help her overcome all obstacles, and see him fulfill his dreams. And every so often you are reminded how awesome a responsibility it is to care for a child, every child, this one child. What does the future hold? What is to become of him? What great deeds will these little hands accomplish? Where will these little feet take her?
And the eternal Word of God was such a child born in time clothed in human flesh, now held securely in the arms of his mother. We honor that woman today, she who is both virgin and mother of that child of prophecy and mystery, and who was privileged to cradle the eternal God in her arms. We are filled with wonder at the awesome blessing as well as the awesome responsibility that fell to her and her husband. To them was entrusted the task of bringing him up to make his mark on human history. They could never have imagined what mighty deeds his hands would accomplish, and where among their people and beyond his feet would take him. They could never have imagined who would hear his message of reconciliation and renewal in his own lifetime and beyond, whose lives he would transform, who would imitate his example of perfect obedience to the Father and selfless love for humanity, and that the tiny little hands and feet they held tenderly and marveled at would one day be violently nailed to a cross. They could never have known then. And as she witnessed the unfolding of the events that marked his birth, recalling the angelic messenger’s words, into the years of his hidden life at their home in Nazareth, into his ministry of teaching and healing, all the way to the dark days of his passion and death, she would hold close all that she saw and heard, reflecting on their meaning in the quiet of her heart. And perhaps at the end of her own life’s journey, she would come to understand the role she was asked to play in the story of salvation. If she knew at the start what she would have needed to learn when it was all accomplished, if she did not need to take in the events as they unfolded, if she did not stop to reflect on their meaning, would she still be a willing participant in the plan God set out to fulfill?
Each of us is invited to actively participate in God’s plan of salvation. The roles that we are to play will be unique to us. No one else will be able to do what we should do. And similar to Mary’s experience of the unfolding of God’s plan, there will be much we will never know or understand until much later. So like her, we must be willing to believe God will accomplish wonderful things, that we keep what we see and hear, and reflect on them in the quiet of our hearts. And as we pray for peace, we place our lives at the disposal of God’s plan. We remain optimistic and hopeful, not given over to cynicism and discouragement. We put forth a sincere effort to make peace a reality right where we find ourselves, among our families, our churches, our communities. We give freely of our resources toward the cause of peace, alleviating the suffering we see, bringing an end to injustice where we find it, extending compassion where people are hurting. When our parents held us as children in their arms, they may have held our hands and feet tenderly as well, wondering what ever would become of us. Do we make an effort to exceed their expectations?