We have just begun a new year and hopes are high that 2015 will bring with it new opportunities, new blessings, and new happiness. New Year’s resolutions have been made, and as I observed with my cousin while out on a run this past week, they are so far being implemented successfully. As we passed one of the New Year’s faithful (of 2 days and counting) running the opposite direction, my cousin commented, “I love this time of year,” noting that she sees an increase of runners outside each January despite the below-freezing Wisconsin weather. Why?
It seems that the idea of beginning a new year helps people realize that they can stop doing things they have been doing the previous year and start doing new things now.
For those of us in school this happens every semester. Each semester begins with optimism and resolutions. Oh yes, I will study Greek for 30 minutes every day! That final paper is due the end of the semester so I’ll write a draft a full month in advance. Oh, extra-additional-supplementary-optional-bonus readings, how interesting! Less than a month ago, exhausted, I was seeking out paths of least resistance to the finish line of last semester. Suggestions on further improving my work (meaning more work) were likely met with Pilate’s dismissive comment, “What I have written, I have written!” But now, in the glow of a new semester, learning is fun and exciting, and I endeavor once again to be the noble scholar motivated by a love for truth. That was last semester. This is a NEW semester!
While watching college bowls and the NFL wild card games this past week, I was reminded how frequently coaches and players draw upon this same idea. I can’t count the number of times the announcers repeated, “Nothing you have done up till now matters. All that matters is now.” I imagine this is a phrase they heard from their coaches, repeated to themselves as players, and even said to their players when they became coaches. Whether talking about a bowl game or playoff run, or starting the second half, finishing a drive, or playing the final down in the fourth quarter, the message conveys the same sense of urgency and immediacy.
This same message also applies to the Christian life, albeit with some important qualifications. Just as a team cannot make a bowl game, playoff, or championship independent from what they have done previously, so also our current state of life is based on what we (and others) have done previously. (Thanks for the baptism, mom and dad!) Also, just as those previous wins, losses, yards, sacks, injuries, and drills in practice were all real and form better habits for the future, so our sins and our acts of repentance and love are real – they too affect our lives and build habits that form who we are.
However, this sports statement can also mean something like, “It doesn’t matter if you’re undefeated so far this season. It doesn’t guarantee you the championship. You must win today. Likewise, if you barely made the playoffs and were previously crushed by this same opponent, you can leave that behind. Step up now, and be champions!” St. Paul similarly coaches the faithful in Corinth against presumption, even if they have been faithful in the past: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). This is the same man who had earlier grasped the urgency of the present moment in his own conversion. Though he had been guilty of persecuting the Church and had even looked on with approval when St. Stephen was martyred, he came to respond openly to Ananias’ words, “Why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lam 3:22-23). The Lord’s mercy is not only available at the start of every new year, but it is new every morning and every moment. While it is helpful to be reminded at certain times each year, such as New Year’s and Lent, that we can leave behind old ways and have a new start and fresh beginning, this opportunity is present to us at every moment, even if we are not always aware of it.
God has given us a lifetime of moments to receive his mercy and forgiveness and to start anew. At any and every moment, no matter how grave our mistakes, we can approach the Lord in confession and say with the contrite tax collector, “Have mercy on me a sinner” (Lk 18:13). And if we should find at the end of our lives that we have wasted it on sin – and if we get a last chance to repent – there is some comfort now in knowing that the Good Shepherd has in fact rescued many into his fold late in the fourth quarter of life. The likes of Oscar Wilde, King Charles II, and Buffalo Bill Cody, along with many less famous persons, have received baptism or confession shortly before death, being received like the Good Thief into God’s mercy and new life.
Let us thank God for his abundant generosity and ask Jesus through the intercession of Mary for the grace to receive God’s mercy at the two most important moments of our life: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Image: Alex Grichenko, Morning After (Blue Ridge Mountains)