"Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).
Charles Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities begins with the words that describe every age: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Newspaper columnists on this first day of the New Year offer their projections for 2016 in the same fashion, many of them heavy on dire assessments of the political scene and global threats coming to a head. Their big-picture views of the problems the world faces search the horizon to determine if the faint rim of light signals a sunrise or a sunset for human hope.
The birth of Jesus offered a quiet yet decisive affirmation of hope in what, even for the evangelists, might have seemed the worst of times. A fearful, violent world in lock down under Roman rule, mockingly proclaimed as Pax Romana by the conquerors, saw little reason for optimism. Survival was the norm for occupied Palestine, caught in the overlapping surveillance and control of Rome, King Herod and the corrupt Temple establishment.
Into this vortex, a poor couple welcomed their child into the world in a stable on the outskirts of tiny Bethlehem, and shepherds came from the surrounding hillsides to welcome him as their savior. The child was crcumcized according to the Law and named "Jesus," the name assigned to him by Gabriel at his annunciation, meaning: "He will save his people from their sins."
Mary shows us how to begin the New Year, by holding all its events in our hearts, pondering them in the light of God's overwhelming gift of hope. For all our fears and daily concerns, Jesus is among us now, and his life, death and resurrection affirm that God holds our story in the heart of divine mercy. Be not afraid.