January 05, 2017

A New Year’s Revolution

By Tina McCormick, PhD *
A New Year’s Revolution

Resolutions: there are many this time of year, as in any year. Be it plans to exercise, to be healthy, or otherwise successful, our ambitions know no bounds. But are our ambitions misplaced? Are they in sync with what they ought to be following the momentous event we just celebrated? Thomas Aquinas had his own battles with gluttony, but regardless, his brilliant mind carried him toward saintliness. Likewise, Catherine of Siena’s saintliness was informed not by surviving on a leaf of lettuce a day (purportedly her diet), but by far greater deeds. Indeed, our plans following Christmas should have less to do with specific resolutions than with the revolution that is Christmas.

The story of the infant laid in the manger of a cave conjures up images of a sweet and comforting harmony, of a peaceful family scene, humble worship, and songs of angels. Yet this story stands at the beginning of all things and is also its end. It signifies God’s final answer to our pleas of ever greater closeness and calls us to battle with the world. It is the story of a revolution and provides the measure for our lives as Christians. As such, it should rattle, not comfort us. 

According to G.K. Chesterton in Everlasting Man, “it might be suggested, a somewhat violent image, that nothing had happened in that fold or crack in the great grey hills except that the whole universe had been turned inside out. I mean that all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest.” To Chesterton, there was something “defiant” about the event, “something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won.” Christ’s birth in a cave signified an “undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below.” In fact, Bethlehem was the place where the extremes of “omnipotence and impotence” met and created the ultimate paradox: “The hands that had made the sun and the stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.” And God had become man “like an outcast or even an outlaw.”

Indeed, Bethlehem showed a world turned upside down. From now on, Chesterton wrote, “there could be no slaves….Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instrument can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.” In other words, God’s entering time in the form of an infant in a cave gave recognition to man’s true dignity. Christ’s entry into the world as an infant in a cave brought to a point all of scripture and opened the way to ever greater union with the Father. The rest would be up to us.

A grand drama, indeed. But where do we fit in?

As Catholics, we have a whole arsenal of shortcuts to feel in sync with God’s plan for this world and our desires to enter the next. We offer up our pain as penance, we pray the rosary and pray for our friends, and we blame the devil for the evil in this world and our own failures. We are quick to pray, but slow to act. We are quick to lament and condemn, but hesitate to take responsibility. We fail to recognize fatalism, complacency, self-referential piety, and judgmentalism as the dangerous personal demons they are. We are often afraid to leave our comfort zone. In short, we tend to be the pious worshippers who linger at the manger, blinded by the star above and too timid to move on. Instead, we should take our cues from the other actors in the play. The shepherds and Wise Men were men of action, men on the move who wasted no time. The shepherds “went with haste” to the manger to “see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Lk 2:15f.) They heeded the angels’ message and “were not afraid.”

The message of the manger is that God is love. But the nature of this love puts us on a revolutionary path. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that “love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic 'good feeling.' Redemption is not 'wellness,' it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price; the anguish of the Cross. The prophecy of light and that of the Cross belong together.” (The Infancy Narratives (New York, 2012), p. 86)

The image we have of the three Magi reflects the magnificent dignity that comes from this love that is also sacrifice. Dressed like kings and bearing precious gifts, the three travelers invite us to share in such dignity as we make our personal journey of faith and ever greater closeness to God. But to follow their path, we must have courage to not only recognize our personal limitations but to also transcend them through a life of active love that both accepts and gives.

To Pope Benedict XVI, “the wise men from the East are the new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ. They initiate a procession that continues throughout history. Not only do they represent the people who have found the way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him.” (The Infancy Narratives, p. 97)

St. Paul encountered the laziness and complacency that stands in the way of such a grace filled journey. He reprimanded Thessalonians: “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies.” (2 Thessalonians 3:11) Let us not be idle or comfortable or too pious then, but let us follow the Magi in their quest, always on the move and ready to share the glorious truth they discovered.

Tina McCormick, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard, is raising her five children in Massachusetts. She is the president of the NewBostonPost Foundation.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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