Mary & Midwestern Goodbyes

Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

Wisconsinites, and Midwesterners in general, are famous for their long goodbyes. When it comes time to leave a party or a family gathering, we can’t just get up and go. It’s against our nature. The Midwestern goodbye is a long and drawn-out affair consisting of at least three or four distinct and separate goodbyes. Sometimes we spend us much time saying goodbye as we spend at the actual party or gathering. The one exception to this was last year, on this day, when the entirety of the Midwest, and the country in general, said goodbye to 2020. This was not a long and drawn-out affair. We all wanted 2020 to be over, and we were happy to leave it behind. But perhaps, as stand on the threshold of this new year, we feel the same way about 2021 as we did about 2020. Perhaps we’re just as glad for 2021 to be over; perhaps we’re just as happy to leave it behind. If we’re feeling this way, it’s important that we pause for a moment and ask ourselves this question: “Is this really the right attitude we should take toward these past two years?”

In the busyness of our everyday lives, we rarely take the time to reflect on the things that we have done, or the things that have happened to us. In other words, we rarely take the time to do what Mary does in our gospel today: to reflect on things in our hearts. And when we do take the time to do this, we usually just reflect on the things that are positive or certain, not the things that are difficult or confusing. In our gospel, the shepherds make known to Mary and Joseph what the angel had told them about Jesus. “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” This is what the angel had told the shepherds about Jesus. And when the shepherds relay this message, is says that Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

Two Greek words are used to describe what Mary does in this moment. The first word, which is translated as “kept,” means to remember in such a way so as to not forget. It means to preserve something perfectly in your memory. The second word, which is translated as “reflecting,” literally means “to throw together.” Mary has just had a lot thrown at her, and it’s as if she is tossing these ideas around in her mind, turning them over and over in her head. And none of these ideas are simple or straightforward. The child she just gave birth to is the Lord—as in, God Himself! That’s kind of a big deal. Her child is also the Messiah—that’s kind of a big deal too. And, to top it off, He’s the Savior! He’s going to save Israel from something. And if it’s anything like what’s happened in Israel’s past, it isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to involve a lot of pain and suffering.

Despite what the shepherds share, despite the good news of great joy, these aren’t perfectly happy thoughts that Mary is having in our gospel. They aren’t just positive and certain, they’re also difficult and confusing. And yet Mary reflects on them nonetheless. She remembers them in such a way so as to not forget. She tosses them around in her mind and turns them over in her head. And in doing so, Mary teaches us the right attitude we should have toward the past two years.

If we have a completely negative attitude to everything that’s happened in 2020 and 2021, then we’re missing an opportunity: an opportunity to hear what God has been trying to tell us. Like the shepherds, God has been trying to tell us something these past two years. God has a message that He’s been trying to communicate to us. And like Mary, we are called to be open to this message, and to reflect on it in our hearts. This message may not be entirely happy, it might not be completely positive or totally certain. There may be aspects of it that are difficult and confusing. But we’re called to reflect on it nonetheless.

What has God been trying to tell us these past two years? If we’ve already asked ourselves this question, we might already have an answer. If we haven’t, it’s time to ask it. My challenge to all of us this next week is this: Don’t just say “good riddance” to 2021; make a proper Midwestern goodbye. Make it long and drawn-out. Reflect on this past year and the year before it. And don’t just focus on what was positive or certain; be open as well to what was difficult and confusing. See if God is trying to tell you something. See if He has a message for you. And if He does, then remember it, as Mary did. Don’t miss this opportunity to glean something from the past, because that is often how God prepares us for the future. Amen.