Many books are written for a young audience and certain of those achieve an exalted status, read generation after generation. Often they are parts of a series, like the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans. Heck, my 22-year-old daughter dressed up as Madeline this Halloween to the delight of the children at Angels’ Place, the child care center in Pittsburgh where she is spending the year as their Marketing and Communications Fellow. I’m glad – and so, I’m sure, are the children – that she did not reprise her 2016 Halloween role as the character ‘11’ from Stranger Things.
Another series of books that is a staple on most children’s bookshelves involves a family of bears and is named for their authors, Stan and Jan Berenstain. In 1962, with the editorial assistance of Dr. Seuss, The Big Honey Hunt was published, and thus began a parade of over three hundred titles, as well as forays into television, movies, toys and the rest.
A favorite in our house, and one that always comes to my mind in the first week of each new year, is The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday. In the book (SPOILER ALERT) Sister Bear’s birthday celebrations are a bit overwhelming, and include quite a few tears. Yet all ends well once she sees how she has grown since her last birthday and how she has the opportunity to continue that growth in the upcoming year.
This book came to mind yesterday as I thought of the need to put all of the Christmas and New Year’s revelry and indulgence behind me and look ahead, like Sister Bear, to what will make the upcoming year one worth looking back on in twelve months time.
Rather than turning to the works of Stan and Jan, I looked to the most recent effort of Pope Francis – his New Year’s Day homily. At Mass on the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, the Holy Father touches upon the same theme as Too Much Birthday, but, not surprisingly, with a bit more Theological subtlety.
“Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Francis notes that “these things” referenced by St. Luke in his Gospel account are the incredible events that have transpired up to that point in Mary’s journey, but they are also the worries of what the future would hold for her Son, for herself, for the world. He tells us that we are to imitate Mary by doing as she did, by embracing silence in order to listen to the Incarnate God who lies in the manger.
“As we look on in silence, we let Jesus speak to our heart. His lowliness lays low our pride; his poverty challenges our outward display; his tender love touches our hardened hearts.”
Pride, outward display, hardened hearts. These are three very difficult mirrors in which to see our images, yet it is only by pondering them in our hearts that we can follow the example of Mary, called by Francis “God’s finest human creation.” If we devote ourselves to Mary – a devotion that the Holy Father says, “is not spiritual etiquette; it is a requirement of the Christian life” – then we can begin to root out those three deadly vices.
As Sister Bear was called upon by her mother to look back on the previous year and ahead to the next, so does our Mother, who is also the Theotokos – the Mother of God, call upon us to do the same. We could focus on the fact that last year brought us no closer to our ultimate weight and health goals, we could look to a new year of learning another language or reading the collected works of Shakespeare, or we could take the lead of Mary and spend time pondering in our hearts the mysteries of God’s love for us and what our proper response should be. I’m guessing that following Mary’s example is the option that will give us the most to look back on and ponder in our hearts, even if we gain a few more pounds or never get around to reading Hamlet.
On a personal note, Mary Kate Healey, that 22-year-old who dressed up as Madeline, provided my wife Ann and I with a very special opportunity to ponder and be grateful for God’s love in our lives when on Christmas Eve she said “yes” to the proposal of matrimony offered by Thomas Yarcusko ’12. May the Blessed Mother, Our Lady, guide and protect them on their journey.