Christ is born, God incarnate, in flesh, lying in a manger.
Our Christmas tree, twinkling and tinseled with glittering decorations, remains in the corner of our living room. The presents have been unwrapped, the carols sung, the tables no longer crowded with laughter and joy. For a few hours on Christmas Day, we forgot our disappointments and squabbles. We loved one another a little better. The baby in the manger taught us how to do this, gave us the way toward the light in the darkness, towards love, towards peace. He continues to lead us to that star in the heavens. He does this through incarnation, through baptism, through sanctification.
I have come to see that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is called to sanctify the secular world, to baptize the culture with Christ.
As Christians, we are strangers and sojourners in a strange land. Yet we are called be witnesses. We are called to tell our story of Incarnation and Resurrection. As a military friend said recently, “We signed up for this.” Indeed. At our baptisms we received the Holy Spirit through the pouring of water, and incarnated in that water, the Holy Spirit was resurrected in our flesh. At our Confirmations, we were received into Christ’s flock and signed “with the sign of the Cross, in token that thereafter (we) shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant until (our) life’s end…” The Holy Spirit came to us through the hands of the bishop and with the anointing of holy oils. We became adult Christians. We became one flesh with the Body of Christ, a family of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, by adoption, through Grace.
Since the first century, the Church has baptized the secular world with love. Being composed of fallen men and women, this Body of Christ has also done harm. But the Church admits this, and invites our secular world inside, through the open doors of its heart, into the nave, up the central aisle, to the high altar. The Church invites the world to come inside, to repent, to change, for her rites are birthed by penitence, so that mankind can sing a new song.
To repent is to change, turn around. To repent is to confess and take stock of the truth about ourselves. To repent is to look in a mirror and admit flaws. To repent is to choose a different path, a path of love.
New Year’s resolutions are actually diluted penitence, a thin, watery version, yet at the same time impossible to fully implement. We seem to have an innate desire to better ourselves. At the end of the year we consider again how to improve ourselves – diet, exercise, relationships, success, screen time, education. Just so, repentance considers improvements, but with a difference.
Secular resolutions demand that we make these changes by ourselves. Repentance – sanctified resolutions – requires that we make these changes with the help of God. We recognize we cannot do this alone, we cannot perfect ourselves alone. We need spiritual help. The Church provides this help. It provides a way, the only way, that it can actually be done.
Looking in the mirror or into our hearts, we reflect on the last year, and we consider the seven deadly sins, Christian versions, baptized versions, of common human failings, and their opposites: lust/chastity, gluttony/temperance, greed/charity, sloth/diligence, wrath/patience, envy/gratitude, pride/humility.
These are simple beginnings, broad categories of wrongdoing. If we practiced this simple list – turned the seven deadly sins into their respective virtues – our secular resolutions would be covered and then some. Within the Body of Christ we are urged to practice this resolving on a regular basis, weekly at minimum. We confess our sins in the Mass and are absolved so that we can resolve to do better. We enter the new week as though it were a New Year.
But we make our resolutions with the help of God through the Church, not on our own. Steadily, slowly, confessing and repenting, resolving to do better, be better, receiving forgiveness for daily failures, we might even lose weight, become healthy in both body and soul. We will learn to love as we are meant to love. And through patience and diligence we will work hard and produce bountifully for the glory of God. Depression is dissolved through gratitude. Ambition is anchored by humility. Lust is lost in temperance.
We Christians are a resolving people. We resolve many things with words we recite in our liturgies and hear in our sermons and lessons. We resolve, by God, to be better people, with the help of God, not alone. For without Him, we can do nothing. With Him, we can do anything.
We are a new creation living in this New Year 2018. Our newness is again and again renewed, reborn, through self-examination and turning around. Our culture speaks of second starts, second chances. We as the Body of Christ are given an infinite number of beginnings, turning-arounds, re-turnings to God. With our heavenly Father’s help, with the Incarnation of his Son in human flesh, and with the ongoing incarnation of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, we are reborn again and again.
And so the Church improves upon the secular resolutions of the New Year. The Body of Christ sanctifies, through repentance, every day, week, year. The Church promises the help of God to make this happen, so when we pass into Eternity, we will see the face of God, the burning light of Christ. We will be perfected in love.
Christmas Day is passed, and our fir tree will soon be gone. But Christ Jesus is with us, Emmanuel, God with us. We celebrate this union of Heaven and Earth, this incarnation of love among us, for when we do not love enough, Christ shows us how to love more. Through holy-days that punctuate our time on earth, we tell the wondrous story of mankind: who we are, and who we are resolved to be, baptized children of God, on the way to Heaven.
Merry Christmas and blessings in the New Year to you and your families.