01 January 2015

A Tale of Two Feasts



Homily for the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God
1 January, New Year's Day


There are actually two feasts that we celebrate today: one is secular – New Year’s Day, and the other, sacred – the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. As our thoughts and wishes turn towards better prospects for the new year, the liturgy turns our prayer and reflection towards the humble figure of the young mother Mary.

Media organizations usher in the new year with a recap of the previous year’s big events and predictions for the new one. Individuals write resolutions to start doing better things and stop doing bad ones. For most people there is more to January 1 than just being a human construct that tracks the passing of time. It is by most accounts a milestone, the start of yet another period laden with possibilities – of reforms to undertake, giants to slay, and life-altering decisions to make. And then the Church wants us to start the year with Mary.

Far from being yet another face-off in the culture wars between the sacred and the secular, the melding of these two feasts may actually be providential. This particular Marian feast springs from the affirmation that Jesus Christ is both true God and true man. Thus, it is only logical that Mary be called Theotokos (literally “God bearer”) in Greek, and Dei genetrix (“she who gave birth to God”) in Latin. In her womb, the mystery of the Incarnation first happened – God intervening in human affairs in the most dumbfounding way: by becoming one like us in all things but sin. The Incarnation is the ultimate melding of the sacred and the secular.

As we sit down for our annual ritual of making plans and writing down resolutions, we remember that God Himself set-out to accomplish a big plan which sought no less than the salvation of humanity. To accomplish such an enormous undertaking, His preparation spanned centuries and enlisted the help of prophets and priests, judges and kings. But at the final hour when everything was about to be brought to completion, He turned not to the high and mighty of the time but to a young girl in an obscure village in the outskirts of a sprawling empire, and made her decision to accept His offer a turning point in world history.

It was not at all far-fetched that the Chosen People would expect a Messiah who would come with political savvy and military might, conquering their known enemies and restoring their exalted place among the nations. After all they have been taught for generations that their savior would descend from the proud lineage of King David. Yet in choosing to save the world, God did not choose the way of the wise, the rich, and the mighty. Instead, He chose poor and simple folks to bear His Son, the most squalid condition for His birthplace, and one of the most dangerous times for His birth date.

This lesson is also found in the best modern-day allegory of the Good News. I am referring to the Lord of the Rings novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, including the recently concluded film trilogy, the Hobbit. Among the major characters in the series were the wizards Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. 

Wizards in Tolkien’s novels were not really humans who know how to conjure magic tricks, they were more like angels sent to set things right for the inhabitants of Middle-Earth and to protect them from evil. Both of them started with wanting to protect Middle-Earth from the evil Sauron but they differed in their ways. Saruman wanted to use whatever force there is, including the very tools of the enemy, to fight against evil. Gandalf, on the other hand, believed less in confronting brute force with brute force, and more in building peoples’ capacity for goodness, even among those perceived to be the weakest among them.

Along the way, Saruman would be corrupted by power, co-opted by Sauron, and eventually destroyed. Gandalf followed a more tortuous yet victorious route, rallying the forces of good amidst their respective self-doubts and petty concerns into great feats of heroism and self-sacrifice. In the end, the combined forces of men, elves, and dwarves won not because they have the bigger army or the more fearsome soldiers but because of the self-giving and determination of two simple hobbits: Frodo and Sam.

In one memorable line from the Hobbit movie, Gandalf said: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found.  It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.  Small acts of kindness and love.”

And so today, the first day of the year, we turn our thoughts towards Mary and remember how simple acts of kindness and love can be transformed by God into events that change the face of the earth. Our poverty and limit experiences were never meant to stop us from succeeding in life or, more importantly, from spreading goodness, mercy and compassion. Rather, as the Gospel story and our own life stories would attest, God sometimes makes use of our poverty and limit experiences as enablers to growth in wisdom and grace.  

This bit of sacred insight is meant to kickstart our secular year so that we can let God turn our human affairs – from the loftiest to the most mundane – into rays of light that dispel the darkness in our lives and in those of the people we meet.

May the inspiration of the Blessed Mary Mother of God lead us to living a blessed new year and building a brighter future for all.