Exceeding Expectations

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God


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 any other time of the year because we do. But as we cross the threshold of a new year, we always eagerly leave the sorrows and struggles of the past behind. We acknowledge blessings and successes but sorrows and struggles sometimes loom larger. Yet are we truly eager to embrace an uncertain future and leave the familiar past behind? Time and again, we cling to comfortable attitudes and patterns of behavior that hinder personal, emotional, and spiritual growth. We hold on to selfish distrustful attitudes rather than invite inner healing and reconciliation. We prefer old grudges and resentments to taking risks and opening new dialogues. We make the excuse of having been optimistic in the past. A few times we even made a heroic effort, giving up time, energy, and resources in pursuit of elusive goals. We even gave 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 baby 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 does not grasp the implications of that vision right this very moment. She can only see a child before her, 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 many of you have, I can only imagine what runs through your mind. You can lose yourself in wonder and awe. You have so much love for your 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 her? What great deeds will these little hands accomplish? Where will these little feet take him?

And the eternal Word of God was such a child born in time clothed in human flesh, now held securely in his mother’s arms. 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 grace and the equally awesome responsibility that fell to Joseph and her. To them was given the task of bringing him up to alter human history forever. They could never have known what mighty deeds his hands would accomplish, and where among their people and beyond his feet would take him. They could never have known 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 wonderful 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 as her own journey neared completion, she would come to grasp her role in the story of salvation. If she had just known from the start all she needed to do, would she still be a willing participant in God’s plan?

We are each invited to participate in God’s saving plan. Our roles will be unique to us. And similar to Mary’s experience of the unfolding of God’s plan, there will be much we will never know or understand until 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 family, our church, our community. We share our resources for the cause of peace, alleviating suffering where 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 sincerely try to exceed their expectations? Do we try to exceed God’s expectations?

Rolo B Castillo © 2023

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