©2009, Randall A. Beeler
My apologies to sauerkraut devotees, but I despise the stuff. Not just for the acrid, make-yer-teeth-curl taste but for the depressing associations with New Year's Day.
Please understand: growing up, I hated school. New Year's Day routinely meant the end of Christmas Break, and my mom or Mrs. Urban were always cooking sauerkraut on New Year's Day. I can't explain my mother—I mean, she's Italian! But she (like many) has always associated sauerkraut with a Happy New Year, like Southerners in the United States associate good luck in the New Year with black-eyed peas and cornbread (something I can stomach with no nasty memories).
But on those New Year's Days when we went to my Nana Vitanza's upstairs-apartment in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh (for some decent food--Italian, thank you!), her downstairs landlady, Mrs. Urban (a kindly old Polish woman, really) would be cooking what smelled like a dumptruck of sauerkraut—for no army in particular that I could scout in the environs.
It stunk—three stories up! I break into a cold sweat just writing this. That slithering, serpentine odor would curl its way into my nostrils and choke me on the all-too-hideous realization that I had to go to school the next day. What sadist invents such a thing (uh, sauerkraut and school, I mean)?
Who invented New Year's Day, for that matter? Who thought this rude end to the celebration of the Incarnation as an easing back into the routine? I have to tell whomever that it's working no better than the sauerkraut.
As my loathing of school spawned my sauerkraut phobia, perhaps our apprehension of what is to come now that Christmas is over spurs the world's pursuit of New Year's Day.
So Emmanuel is with us. Well, He's gone into hiding in Egypt. When He finally does spring onto the world scene 30 years later, He will end up on the Cross. Yes, we know that He will rise from the Dead … but … what if He doesn't this time?
What if the stench of the world's crushing our hopes and dreams—it's incessant, cliché demands that there is no free lunch and our deep-down haunting awareness that our own efforts, no matter how heroic, are doomed to failure—choke us on the "reality" that the grind begins again and again, world without end, no Amen?
Mary never visited Mrs. Urban, but She well knows the end of Christmas. Think about it. Her Advent begins with the Annunciation—an alarming encounter, no doubt, but with the promise of bearing God Himself to the world. Her stay with cousin Elizabeth is nothing short of magnificat-i-cent, so to speak. The Nativity is a bit adventuresome, but Mary and Joseph do find a place to have the Christ Child, rent-free, and, in the end, are regaled by everyone from shepherds to angels to Magi. (The gold must've come in handy, even if a carpentry-based family had little use for frankincense and myrrh.)
But Her purification and Jesus' presentation at the Temple leave a sour taste in the mouth. Yes, the Christ Child is destined for a strange glory, like our New Year, but the price of it is a sword piercing Mary's heart (Lk 2:34-35). A darkness lay ahead for Her, as it does right now for us. The world is cold, the nights are long, our shadows look taller than our souls. Christmas seems burnt out, school is about to start, and Spring is so far away. What is this icy finger that pierces our hearts?
The Church's January-1st celebration of the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God invites us to embrace this New Year as Mary does Her prophesied sword: by treasuring everything in our hearts (Lk 2:51)—even sauerkraut and school.
If we are to bear Christ to the world, we must do as Mary does: treasure this sword and all that God gives—and hold on. Christ comes, but to blossom in our world like an ever-opening rose requires a cross that we are called to share with Him. The wormwood and the gall on the sponge held up to us, crucified and nearly dead from the attacks of our ancient enemy, may seem as acrid as sauerkraut to an school-loathing child on New Year's Day. Yet, our New Year must journey through cold and darkness, with God.
Otherwise, how are we ever to know that He is with us when we need Him most?
Mary, Mother of God, be our Gate to the New Year. May our hearts be pierced—not out of vanity—but to open them for Christ. For like the growing light of the New Year, He must wax ever brighter for us to see ourselves as He sees us.
And He will never fade. Amen.