Forgive me if you’ve heard this joke before, but it’s one of my favorites. The elderly Irish pastor of my home parish always began his homily on this day with this joke about an elderly Irish pastor.
There was an old Monsignor who preached weekly on the threat of damnation that faced unrepentant sinners. He preached about hell-fire and damnation during Lent. He preached about Hell during the Easter season. He preached about Hell during Ordinary Time. His parishioners had an intimate knowledge of Hell due to constant exposure to his preaching.
The Bishop’s Office received a steady stream of complaints about the Monsignor’s preaching. One year, the Monsignor preached about Hell on Thanksgiving Day. This was the last straw for the Bishop. He called the Monsignor into his office, and forbade him from ever preaching about Hell again. He said, “Monsignor, you are not to mention Hell during Advent. You not to mention Hell at Christmas. You are never to use the word “Hell” again in any homily that you deliver.”
The elderly Monsignor protested that he felt an obligation to warn his parishioners about the eternal punishment that awaits unrepentant sinners. The Bishop made him promise that he would avoid using the word “Hell,” and the elderly pastor acquiesced under holy obedience. The elderly pastor struggled during Advent not to mention Hell in reference to the preaching of John the Baptist. He was able to make it through Christmas without mentioning the word “Hell,” but he struggled visibly on the Feast of the Holy Innocents to avoid using the forbidden word.
On January 1 he was at the breaking point. He would not disobey the Bishop, but he felt compelled to warn his parishioners about the eternal consequences of sin. He said, “Everyone here knows there is a word I cannot use. Everyone knows what that word is. It’s what all of you look like after a night of carousing on New Year’s Eve, and it’s where all of you are going if you don’t repent of your sins!”
Admittedly, it’s not a great joke, but it’s appropriate for today’s holy day of obligation.
Today is an odd excuse for a feast. The first day of the calendar year is primarily associated with civil celebrations involving not a few adult beverages. A Marian feast seems out of place. Mary is an example of humility and holiness; New Year’s Day is anything but humble and holy. There is, however, one inarguable reason to put a Marian feast on this day.
It is an universal complaint that Christmas has become a blatantly materialistic celebration of consumer values. Everyone seems to complain about Christmas, even those consumers whose only values are blatantly materialistic.
I had the opportunity during this Christmas season to watch the behavior of Christmas consumers. One of the grocery stores I frequent is adjacent to a shopping mall. I had to deal with the mall crowds, even though I never went into the mall. The mall parking lot, and the surrounding streets, could have been used as background scenery for a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. People rushed around in a panic, as if they were trying to escape Godzilla or the attack of the Martian invasion force. The “Christmas spirit” is not only avaricious; it is frantic, anti-social and desperate.
There is something really wrong with American culture. We have created a holiday that we all love to hate. Against the backdrop of our cultural delusions and obsessions, a feast of Mary begins to make a lot of sense.
I have come to treasure this feast of Mary, the Mother of God, because it is so necessarily low-key. Some of you might be like the bleary-eyed revelers to whom the warning was issued by the elderly pastor in the joke. Some of you probably did very little last night, simply because you wanted to avoid looking like the place the elderly pastor was forbidden to mention. Whether by choice or consequence, January 1 is, for the most part, a quiet day.
A feast of Mary, humble, faithful and holy, is appropriate both to the day and to the beginning of the new year. We used to pray to Mary to end the Cold War and Communist aggression. Those prayers were answered decades ago. Now, I think there’s another task we can give Mary – an end to the overly busy and frantic game that Christmas has become. Admittedly, this might prove more difficult than overcoming Communism, but I’m willing to let Mary take her best shot at it.
I think I’ll start 2016 with a simple prayer for the gift of a simple year. Let’s take Mary as our example and guide, that all of us might lead lives of humility, trust and holiness. That is a path to a truly happy New Year.