Whenever we celebrate a New Year, we think a lot about change – how this year to come can be better than the year just completed. That is especially the case this year of the pandemic. And we also think about the changes we should make in our own lives – these are often expressed as “New Year’s Resolutions” – what we want to do to improve ourselves for the next year – particular things that we would like to do or should do to contribute to a better world. But why is it that for most of the things we want to change, that change does not come easily? Why do we fail so often in our resolutions? Why is it that our resolve does not last? In a non-covid year, for example, the gyms are packed in January but not so packed by mid-February. It is hard to stay on that diet program we’ve started. It is hard to keep that commitment to ourselves to do what we want to do – even when we know that it is for our own good and for the good of others. What does this tell us? Knowledge about what is right and good is not enough. Even a step-by-step plan to reach that goal is not enough. Making a decision is not enough, and our human will power is not enough. So what is needed for real change to happen? Just having the instruction book is not enough. That is not going to get us our of bed in the morning. As we say in the Act of Contrition, besides “firmly resolving”, we need the help of God’s grace to amend or change our lives. That grace is not an idea or something abstract, but the recognition of an unmerited gift in our life – a gift we can touch and see. If we think of the times that we’ve changed for the better, in often surprising ways, it has come because of the presence of another person – a person that loves us in a surprising way and that looks on us with mercy and tenderness – whose presence is perceived as an unmerited gift in our life. This is a common experience when a man falls in love with a woman and suddenly becomes more responsible. He is responding to a presence. There is a big difference between the experience of trying to get oneself in shape (literally or figuratively) in the hopes of meeting someone versus the energy one is given when one sees the face of the beloved. New mothers will tell you also that a love they didn’t know they had springs forth when they see the face of their baby for the first time. The woman is pregnant for 9 months and knows she is going to give birth, but the world changes and she is changed when she sees her baby’s face. I’ve experienced something similar through the presence of certain friends in my life. They move me to be better not simply by their example, but because they care for me and look at me with love. Perhaps the most common experience of this dynamic for all of us is the relationship we have with our mother – how her look of love and tender mercy moves us and gives us strength even in our weakness. It is the experience of wonder before this love and the esteem one has for the one who looks at us in this way that moves us to change and to follow a new way. It is not willpower that makes us do what is good and right but responding to this grace that has entered our life. This movement in us is not something we generate but something that is brought to birth in us.
Today, we celebrate Mary as the Mother of God because it is through her that God has taken flesh in the world – that he has become a presence that we can encounter in a human way. It is through her that God has a human face and has come near to us to bless us with his mercy. It is through Mary that the blessing of Aaron is fulfilled: that the Lord’s face shines upon us. It is seeing his face in the faces of those who love us that we experience his grace and peace. I think this is why the isolation and separation we are undergoing is particularly difficult and why we feel stuck in many ways and depressed and way masks only add to the suffering: we cannot see the faces of those we love. We need to see the face of the one who loves us in order to change and to have hope. It is the face that reveals the presence of the person. May we thank God and Mary, his Mother, for the faces of those we love and who love us who reveal the face of God, so we, in this new year, may be changed and give glory and praise to God for all we have heard and seen. May God bless you and grant you his peace!