Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A renewal of hope


About 100 years ago, the Jesuit poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem that begins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It’s a beautiful statement of the miraculous – all the more surprising because Hopkins himself suffered from depression. His life was a struggle, full of difficulties and disappointments. It was not always easy for him to see God’s goodness in the world around him. It can be that way, at times, for all of us.

But there is no better time to look for God’s grandeur, and to discover it, than now – at the beginning of a new year. We see this in all the news stories that will mention the first baby born this year. We also see it in the hundreds of thousands of people who huddle together in Times Square, shivering in the cold, waiting for that ball to drop, and waiting for history to be made, and waiting for a new number to be added to the calendar.

It’s there in every horn that is blown, every explosion of confetti. It’s loud and crazy – but it is our way of saying, “We are alive. Despite all that has happened to us, and all that we have done wrong, and all that has gone right…we are starting a new year. We are beginning something new.” And I would add that we are able to do this because “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

We need to be reminded of that, I think. It’s easy to miss – especially given the times we live in. Foreclosures, unemployment, recession, growing debt, the bloody battles underway in Israel and elsewhere. It can seem hopeless. But then we look at the feast we celebrate today, and this feast teaches us hope.

Mary was a woman who herself understood what it was like to live in an uncertain and frightening time. The Mother of God found herself in a situation giving birth to the Son of God in a situation of homelessness. There wasn’t even room for them in the inn. She was forced, just days later, to become a refugee, to save the life of her child. Yet she never abandoned hope. She never lost trust in God. Her trust in God, and her faith in the future, is one reason why we honor Mary today, the first day of the new year.

But consider another reason, too: as we begin a new year, the year is – like the Blessed Mother – spotless. The future that lays out before us is a clean page, an empty calendar, waiting to be written on. Everything is pure. Everything is possible. Everything is full of hope. And that is Mary. She is Possibility. She is Creation begun anew – the New Eve. With Mary, and the birth of her son, God among us, we get a fresh start.

We begin this new year with a reminder of how 2,000 years ago, the grandeur of God was made known in the unlikeliest of places, a manger. The Gospel reading today speaks of the first people to discover it: the shepherds who hurried to the stable. As Luke tells us, they left from that encounter with Jesus to “make known the message that had been told them about this child.” With that, they became – in fact -- the first evangelists.

It was those anonymous shepherds, men who probably couldn’t even read or write, who were the very first to tell the good news. Luke tells us that soon others were also hearing the news – and that they were “amazed” at what they were told. We’re still being amazed. And Mary? Ironically, today, her day, in our readings, she doesn’t utter a word. She “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Others spread the word. But she is the one who gave us The Word.

This is traditionally a day of beginnings – when resolutions are made. That treadmill you got for Christmas will get a work out – for a week or two. So will the diet…and the promise to stop smoking…and the vow you made to finally clean out the garage. It all sounds good for a few days. But it’s soon forgotten, or neglected.

But don’t forget or neglect this beautiful reality: God’s grandeur is with us, and among us. The world IS “charged with the grandeur of God.” That grandeur is in the Eucharist we are about to receive. It is there in the bright light of every winter morning – and the bright hope that is promised to us with the birth of the savior.

If you’re going to make resolutions, resolve to live this year in that hope. And my hope for you, and my prayer for you, for this year is the same one we heard in the first reading. It dates to the time of Moses…but was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi. Today, I want to make it my prayer, our prayer for the New Year: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

Happy New Year and may God give you peace.

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