I am always struck by the traditional cartoon in the media at the end of December as we look forward to the “new” year. Exiting stage left we see an ancient stooped and bearded figure carrying a sickle – and entering stage right a “bonny” smiling babe. The message seems to be always the same ……. Thank God that this year is over – let’s hope for better things in the next!
I am sure that there are very many who may be expressing these sentiments in about 5 weeks’ time – as 2020 will always be remembered as this century’s Pandemic Year.
This coming weekend – as we come to the last days of November, the month in which we remember and pray for, in a special way, those who have been called home by God in the past twelve months – the Christian Church will mark the start of another liturgical New Year.
I am reminded once again of my favourite Dag Hammarskjold’s prayer of thanksgiving and offering – For the past, thanks – for the future, yes.
This truly Christian man of peace was so confident of God’s providential care in the past that he was willing to give Him a blank cheque for what lay ahead ……… and he was dead one short year later.
It is Faith which allows the Church to emphasize saying thanks for the ending year – for the past – and to look forward to the next in confident Hope. And we are called to do the same – and say to the future 2021 – Yes!
Obviously, 2020 will be remembered for covid-19 – which changed the lives of all of us in such a challenging way. There was suffering and death – denial and fear. But there was also a wonderful manifestation of the resilience of the human spirit – generosity and heroism – welcome and warmth – inventiveness and creativity – steadfast courage and community support – refound family values – all reminders of what are the things [aeterna non caduca] which are really important in life.
Surely these latter gifts are equally worthy of recall when we come to share our memories of the past year with that more clear vision which, in optical terms, suggests perfection – 2020.
It is the Church’s liturgical cycle which allows us to look back on the past year – in thanksgiving for all that we have come to learn of God’s care for us. This was the grace which Hammarskjold was given – which enabled him to place his future in God’s hands, come what may. He was to die – in active service for a United Nations Peace Mission – in a plane crash in Africa the following year.
God offers that same grace to us also – as we look forward to reliving the mystery of Christ’s coming into our world in time – to a young couple from Nazareth, far from home, in the “little town of Bethlehem” about 2,000 years ago.
We hear of this mystery foretold in Isaiah: Go up on a high mountain, joyful messenger to Zion. Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger ……. shout without fear: ‘Here is your God.’ Here is the Lord coming with power! [Is.40:9-10]
The mystery of God-come-among-us is two dimensional – the human and the divine. At our human level, Christmas is a time of rejoicing and giving – of coming together and of sharing.
This is a time when the joy of giving often exceeds that of receiving – and this Christmas many covid-hit people are worried about not being able to “do-the-Christmas-shopping” and have nothing to give to their loved ones and friends.
But perhaps the Lord is reminding us that, looking for something to give – we do not need to shop-until-we-drop ……... because the best present I can give is right on my doorstep – at the door of my heart – my presence!
One is normally grateful for a gift – and, as is so often the case – a grateful person is a happy person. In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius invites us to reflect on all the gifts that God offers in so many ways – seen and unseen – as He guides us towards the grace of grateful happiness – and to offer ourselves in return.
So as I reflect on the past year – especially the covid months, let me make an audit of the plus moments and the minus ones. Hopefully, the plus column will be longer than the minus – at least initially. But might I be able to see, behind what I considered at the time a minus – the reality of God’s presence in how I was able to deal with what I then felt was negative in my life.
[Take a look at Jacob’s dream at Bethel in Genesis – 28:10-16].
Can I tell myself that, having survived so well during this pandemic – I have every reason to be grateful to others who are part of my life – those who have helped me to survive and those whom I have been able to help – in those minus situations which I have been able to mark as a plus.
Thus – and perhaps to my surprise – I can move many items in my minus column to the plus – and give thanks to God for the presence of family, friends, companions – even strangers – who have given meaning to my life – thus leading me to be grateful – and, consequently, happy in the Lord.
We have heard a lot about bubbles during these covid times – and so, during this Advent [Advent means coming] – let me become cognisant of that small bubble in the stable of Bethlehem. Far from the “bonny” baby of the cartoon – but in the crooked lines of the awesome simplicity of Mary’s helpless infant son – let me see the presence of the Divine Present of God’s Love – as the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Fr Michael Sheil SJ