The beginning of January is traditionally a time for New Year’s resolutions. The ‘lifestyle’ sections of the newspapers, meanwhile, encourage everyone to enrol on stringent ‘detox’ programmes to repair any harm inflicted on the body by the excesses of the Christmas holidays.
It is easy for us to smile at these secular attempts at self-improvement. Usually the resolutions made on 1st January will soon be broken and forgotten, and in many cases they were not worth keeping or remembering in the first place. ‘Detoxing’ often seems to involve the consuming of expensive quack potions, the purgative effects of which have never been proven scientifically to have any lasting beneficial effect on the human body.
Rather than mocking from the sidelines, however, perhaps we should baptise the spirit of the season and make our own resolutions and submit ourselves to some spiritual detoxification. Of course, for Catholics, the ‘new year’ actually began liturgically some time ago, on the First Sunday of Advent. But if we neglected to make good resolutions then, or made some but have since lapsed, now would be an excellent opportunity to renew them or to forge resolutions afresh.
For a disciple of Christ, good resolutions are actually something that have to be made or renewed every day of the year throughout a lifetime. Whether it is to be kinder, more truthful, to be less angry or to give up gossiping, or to avoid those places, situations and people that lead us into sin, such resolutions should be a fruit of the examination of conscience that we are encouraged to make towards the close of every day. With our ‘morning offering’ – the daily prayers with which we launch ourselves into the world – we can then ask for the divine help we need to keep our resolutions.
On the Feast of the Epiphany, the Church celebrates the manifestation of the Word Incarnate to the Gentiles, which demonstrates to the world that the salvation the Christ Child offers is not to be restricted to any particular race or nation. He has come to bring detoxification from the effects of Original Sin to all people and peoples who will kneel in adoration at the Crib. The Epiphany also commemorates two other manifestations, which the liturgical calendar unwraps gradually by presenting them separately in the Gospels appointed for subsequent days. These are the miracle at Cana in Galilee, at which the water turned into wine prefigures the miracle of Transubstantiation at Mass and the transformative power of the Sacraments in general, and the Baptism of Our Lord by St John.
It goes without saying that Our Lord had no need of Baptism. Saint John’s Baptism was a ritual washing, which symbolised the washing away of sins. We can imagine the waters of the Jordan as teeming with the sins of those who flocked to the banks of the Jordan and were moved to repentance by St John’s hellfire preaching. When Our Lord entered that river, He detoxified the waters by taking those sins onto His own shoulders, just as He would bear the sins of the world on His shoulders on the Cross. And in that moment of contact with the Word Made Flesh the waters of Baptism ceased to be merely symbolic and became truly efficacious in dissolving sin and restoring the soul to the life of Grace by applying to us individually the merits of His Sacrifice on Cavalry.
Those of us who have been blessed with Baptism have already been detoxified from the poison of Original Sin. Subsequent sins committed, however, mean that we often need to ask God’s forgiveness and allow Him to detoxify us anew. In the Sacrament of Penance, we open our hearts in repentance, and the humility it requires to enunciate our transgressions and to resolve to make amends is so pleasing to God that He washes us through with an ocean of grace, restoring to us the spiritual nutrients that have been dissipated.
At Our Lord’s Baptism the Heavens open and the Holy Ghost appears in the form of a dove while the voice of God the Father declares: “Behold my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” This demonstrates that Baptism is a Trinitarian event, in which we are united with the Son, become living Temples of the Holy Ghost and beloved children of the Father. At the font, then, we are actually elevated to a new and supernatural level of life, in which we participate in the communion of life and love that flows eternally between the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.
One good resolution we can all surely make at the beginning of this year is to deepen this relationship of communion and communication by putting greater effort into our prayer life. People get into a stew about prayer, with the result that they can end up avoiding it altogether because they “do not know how to pray.” The simple answer is: “Get on with it.” Certainly, there are different ‘schools’ of prayer, and yes there are vast libraries on the subject full of fascinating and invaluable insights written by saints and mystics. In its essence, however, prayer is no more complicated that “the lifting of the mind and heart to God.” When we do that, and when we communicate our thoughts, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, thanks, praise and petitions to God, then He is able to communicate His divine life to us in abundance. When our words run dry, we need not be discouraged. It is a reminder that we also need to rest in silence, allowing God to speak to our hearts. Our Holy Father St Philip encouraged very simple prayers to put ourselves in God’s presence, such as “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, pray to Jesus for me.”
To find basic nourishment for prayer and meditation, we should revisit Holy Scripture. At this time of year, the mysteries celebrated in the Epiphany – the adoration of the Magi, the marriage at Cana and the Baptism of Our Lord – provide a rich source for inspiration. In a season in which we are used to hearing high-minded clerics declaiming against the evils of consumerism, we can try another type of consuming: consume the word of God in Scripture. Devour it and digest it, like the Prophet Ezekiel eating the scroll of God’s judgments so that it became a part of him and he had something to say. Combine this with the spiritual detoxification of Confession and with the restorative exercise of prayer, and we shall have made some New Year’s resolutions worth keeping.
Fr Julian Large