Christian believers are still celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ since Christmas Day is only the first of an octave commemorating the Lord’s nativity. The singular event of God becoming a man is so absolutely monumental that it takes believers eight chronological days to fully observe and rejoice in God’s incarnation among us.
The radical event of God becoming a man, and saving us from darkness, calls us to a different way of life. It reveals to us with a particular worldview, one which cherishes life, reveres virtue, compels servant leadership, and upholds selfless service. It’s a worldview that Saint Paul called “the most excellent way of love.”
One of the immediate benefits of this worldview is the constant opportunity for a spiritual reboot, namely, conversion and new beginnings.
Our human fallenness oftentimes entraps people in the boxes of their sins or their past. People can feel eternally defined by their greatest mistakes or their gravest errors. In spite of such slavery to darkness, the Christian message offers hope. The Good News of Jesus Christ, the God who became a human being, is that darkness has been vanquished and dispelled. It proclaims that we are not defined by our sins but by God’s love for us. It announces the possibility of purification, renewal, and fresh starts.
As the calendar New Year quickly comes to us, this basic Christian message – shining out from Bethlehem – is a helpful one to each of us. As 2019 sprints its way toward us, we can ask ourselves: What’s holding us down? What darkness are we indulging? Will we accept a clean slate?
Years ago as a seminarian in Rome, I would go to Saint Peter’s Basilica for confession. There were several English-speaking confessors. Honestly, a few of them could benefit from some additional pastoral training and greater compassion, but there was one specific confessor who stood out from among the others. It appeared that many people agreed with my opinion about him because he always had a longer line.
This confessor was gracious and gentle, attentive and good-humored. But above all these other things, he gave great hope. At the end of the sacrament, he would always say something like: “Go, now, and begin again your new life in Christ!”
The words were powerful and very uplifting. Years later, I still remember them (and sometimes repeat them to the penitents in my own confession line). The words reflected a message at the heart of who Jesus Christ is and what his kingdom is about.
The Christian message is one that honors the present moment. It frees us from the guilt of the past or the anxiety of the future, so that we can accept the grace offered each day. We are at liberty to say “yes” to the impulses of goodness and the inclinations to righteousness every day. No sin or sorrow has any control over us. We decide each day whether we will accept or reject the offer of a new beginning. We can backslide. We can fret over the future. Or we can choose our new life in Christ and live according to his way of love.
Pope Francis frequently stresses the need for conversion. He emphasizes that such conversion is for everyone. We all need to accept daily the graces of conversion. No one ever arrives and no longer needs to convert. He taught:
“Why do we need to convert? ‘Conversion is for an atheist who becomes a believer, or a sinner who becomes righteous. We do not need it, we are already Christian’ we think. And this is not true. If we think in this way, we do not realize that it is precisely because of this presumption – that we are Christians, good and doing the right thing – that we must convert from the supposition that all things considered, it is fine this way and we are not in need of any form of conversion.”
As we approach the New Year, therefore, God’s grace calls us to pick up the questions above, to seek authentic answers to them in our own lives, and to choose the possibility of conversion. It is precisely our decision for grace and renewal which will allow goodness to win and for light to shine beyond the darkness in our world.
This is the message of Jesus Christ, which germinates throughout this octave of Christmas. It is a message of hope and opportunity, if we accept it.