Conversion in the new year

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We all know how the “newness” and fresh feeling of a new calendar year can quickly be forgotten. That new year enthusiasm, manifested in resolutions to do better in this or that area of one’s life, soon gives way to the doldrums of this midwinter month. In some ways, our world seems to want to move quickly back into the mundane, as we take down lights and festive decorations even while the long nights still cast a gloom on the earth. We who just celebrated the birth of the Light of the World fall back into a kind of darkness. For some it’s a time of serious struggle with melancholy and even depression; for me it is always the most challenging time of the year.

If we look at the calendar, however, we have many reasons to maintain our hope. Let’s start with the very name of the month — January. Perhaps you are familiar with the story of the Roman god Janus, who looks both backward and forward. According to Merriam-Webster, Janus was a god of beginnings, but also of doorways and gates (janua in Latin).

The association with doors intrigues me, because the Church, since the time of Vatican II, celebrates the first day of January as the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. We can think of her as a door, because it was her free and affirmative response to God’s invitation that opened the way for the coming of the Redeemer. And the Church believes this to be such an important reality that she designates the first day of the year as a solemnity and a holy day of obligation.

World Day of Peace also takes place on Jan. 1. It was St. Paul VI who started this tradition in 1967, and each year, the pope issues a rather lengthy statement for the occasion, giving us all something to think about and pray about. In recent years, Pope Francis has focused specifically on migrants and refugees, nonviolence, and fraternity as a way to achieve peace in the world.

Christ, the Prince of Peace, did not remain hidden as Mary’s little one. Rather, his glory was made manifest in what we call the Epiphany. We celebrate him being revealed to the nations (Jan. 6 this year). We recall the “wise men” from the East discovering him, a preview of how he would one day be known by all nations. 

The Church celebrates his Baptism (Jan. 13 this year), when we hear the voice of the Father confirming just who this man is: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Later at the Transfiguration, God will proclaim: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). 

There is a particular man who did listen to him — eventually — and we honor him on Jan. 25, the Conversion of St. Paul. In a month of new beginnings, the story of Saul reminds us that even if we are “the foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) as St. Paul says of himself, God still wants us to return. Conversion is possible.

The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul also marks the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We continue to pray that Christ’s own prayer be fulfilled, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). 

Some years, the beginning of Lent comes so close after Christmas that we wonder where the time is going. It can occur as early as Feb. 4. This year Ash Wednesday doesn’t come until March 6. But there is an old tradition of observing a series of Sundays in preparation for Lent — beginning with Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before the penitential season begins. In the Christian East, too, there are a series of Sundays whose themes help believers get spiritually ready for “the Great Fast.”

This practice, this extra discipline of “pre-Lent” would effectively put the start of our preparation for the great feast of the Resurrection much earlier in the civil calendar — even as far back as January. Considering the crisis we face as a Church, this might not be such a bad idea, for if we are convinced that real renewal and genuine holiness will come about by a deeper examination of our lives and a greater commitment to reform (and the sad revelations in our Church this past year have convinced many of us that the Church needs this more than ever), we have many opportunities in this new year to do just that. 

Happy New Year!

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