The Lion, the Pope, and the New Year

Homily for the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

The passing of a pope is always a significant moment in the life of the Church. I was thirteen when St. John Paul II—who was, until yesterday, the most recent pope to die—passed away on April 2, 2005. Although, at the time, his passing wasn’t as meaningful a moment for me as it was for other members of my family, I remember it distinctly because we were in Illinois celebrating my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.

Yesterday, December 31, 2022, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away. Benedict was pope from his election in April 2005 until his unexpected resignation in February 2013. Although I was born under St. John Paul II and ordained a priest under Pope Francis, Benedict was the pope during the most formative years of my faith when I first heard and answered the call from God to become a priest. His passing, therefore, is especially meaningful to me. As a pope, he inspired me by his faith; as a theologian, by his clarity; and as a priest, by his love for the liturgy. Born into the world on Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter, he leaves the world on the eve of the new year.

The death of someone, whether a family member or an important historical figure, is always an opportunity to remember: to remember who they were, what they said, and the things they did. The celebration of New Year’s also serves a similar purpose. We remember the year that came before and anticipate the year that is to come.

Our gospel today continues in the same theme as we consider the figure of Mary who, upon hearing the message of the shepherds, “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary wants to remember everything that has happened and all that has been said. She wants to keep and treasure these memories in order to preserve them from ruin, in order never to forget them.

Memory has an important role to play in the spiritual life. Throughout the Old Testament, God is constantly reminding the Israelites to remember what He did for them: “Remember how I saved you from slavery in Egypt, remember how I led you through the desert, remember how I rescued you from your enemies.” In the New Testament, remembering what Jesus has done for us is one of the central aspects of being a Christian and is at the very heart of our worship: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The Christmas season is also an opportunity to remember what Jesus has done for us. God became man, so that man might become like God. Jesus shared in our humanity, by being born in Bethlehem, so that we might share in His divinity, by being born again through the waters of baptism. This is precisely what another pope, Pope Leo the Great, wanted to remind his people of during his homily on Christmas day, delivered some time in the first half of the fifth century. “Christian, remember your dignity,” Pope Leo said, “and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition…Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom. Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct.” “Christian, remember your dignity.”

One of the things that Pope Benedict was deeply concerned about during his papacy was our forgetfulness of God. “In vast areas of the world today there is a strange forgetfulness of God,” Benedict said. “It seems as if everything would be just the same even without him. But at the same time there is a feeling of frustration, a sense of dissatisfaction with everyone and everything. People tend to exclaim: ‘This cannot be what life is about!’”

Along with feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction, we also find in many hearts today a crisis of identity. If there is a God who created us, then we are a creature with meaning and purpose; there is a design that we can discover and pattern our lives upon. But if there is no God, then we are an accident of a mindless process of nature, and into the round hole of meaninglessness we must force the square peg of an identity and purpose which we have to create for ourselves.

The way out of this is to remember who we are—to remember our identity, not to create one for ourselves. To quote the immortal words of Mufasa to Simba in The Lion King, “Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more that what you have become. Remember who you are. You are my son…Remember who you are. Remember. Remember. Remember.” Or to quote the actually immortal words of our second reading: “Brothers and sisters: When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a son.”

The greatest tragedy in life for us as Christians is to forget God, which is also to forget who we are as His adopted sons and daughters. Forgetfulness of God necessarily leads to a crisis of identity and, in turn, to a crisis in one’s own sense of self-worth and dignity. But if we remember whose we are, then we will remember who we are. “Christian, remember God; remember that He was born for you, remember that He died for you; remember that He came to share in your humanity so that one day you might share in His divinity; Christian, remember your dignity.” Inspired by the example of Mary in our gospel, may we treasure these truths of our faith in this new year, may we not forget them, may we “keep all these things, reflecting on them in our hearts.” Amen.