January 1, 2019
Fr. Joseph Jacobi
I’ve always found it challenging getting into the “spirit” of a “new year”. Why is that?
January does not seem to hold anything new, at least in the northern hemisphere. Rather everything seems to be the same—the same old dreary days of winter: cold and gray, short days and long nights.
It just does not feel right, to me at least, to say “out with the old and in with the new” when nothing about this time of the year feels “new” to me. Now, if New Year’s Day fell in mid-March when the leaves are starting to green up the grey sky and tulips are starting to paint the ground—now that would feel new to me.
And why do people decide year at this time of year to make “resolutions,” which they know they are not going to keep. I’ve been a regular at exercising ever since I was a kid—part of the blessing and curse of having a mom who majored in physical education—so working out at a gym or fitness center has been part of the fabric of my life. It never fails that this time of year new faces show up at the fitness center, and then they are gone by February.
Maybe I’m just getting older and turning into an old fuddy-duddy, but I don’t see the reason for saying January is a fresh start.
So, in the midst of all this looking ahead, I take great comfort in the example Mary gives at the start of it all, showing us the importance of looking back. On this solemnity celebrating her role as the Mother of God, she teaches us on this 1st day of the year to look back. Or this is how the evangelist Luke puts it:
She “… kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”
There are no New Year’s resolutions for Mary, Rather, she teaches us how to pay attention to what is said about her Son. She shows us how to listen to what Jesus says and observe what he does, and ponder what this all means for our salvation. In the Gospel for this past Sunday, where Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus in the temple and he somewhat scolds them for not looking for him first in his Father’s house, the evangelist Luke notes that when Jesus goes home from the temple with Mary and Joseph that she “kept all these things in her heart.”
As the first disciple, as the One who models for us a life of discipleship, Mary teaches us that the first and most important thing is to reflect upon what Jesus says and does. To treasure these things in our heart, to look back at them and learn.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, taught his followers a specific way of looking back in prayer. Ignatius called this prayer the “Examen. It’s full title is the “Examen of Consciousness.” Ignatius instructed his brother Jesuits that if they were to do only one prayer in the day, then they needed to do this 5-10 minute prayer at the end of the day.
The structure of the “Examen” is quite simple. First, you call upon the Holy Spirit to illumine your day, to reveal what needs to be seen. Then, as you look back on the day by the light of the Holy Spirit, you give thanks for the specific blessings of God given that day. Next, and this is the heart of the prayer, you ask: “How did I respond to the visits of the Lord this day? When God’s face shone up me, did I turn toward Him or turn away? When I was given the opportunity to love the Lord Jesus coming to me through the people I encountered this day, did I choose to love Him or did I refuse?” Then follows a simple prayer asking the Lord to forgive you for not loving Him, for not responding to an invitation of love. Only after “looking back”, after reflecting in such a prayerful way do you then complete the Examen by looking ahead with hope to do better tomorrow.
As we conclude these 8 high holy days of the Christmas season, hopefully we have learned during this octave of Christmas that God became human so God could meet us in our lives as they are.
God is with us, Emmanuel. The Son of God walks with us. The Son of God wants us to open our eyes to see His presence.
Unlike the dramatic pledge of a New Year’s resolution, the slow work of reflection is a daily commitment to do something ordinary. But it uncovers the extra-ordinary presence of God. Right where we are, the Lord with us. In the middle of things. In the middle of our messy lives. The Son of God walking with us and CALLING US TO NEW LIFE!