Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

The year comes to an end, finally.

It was a year of unprecedented violence and destruction, with the news and everybody talking about how many people died.

No one expected there to be so much death.

Still, there was much good in the year. Ordinary people went on with their daily lives, grew in so many ways, and overcame all sorts of obstacles. This was a year to treasure the small victories, the resilience of human beings in the face of all kinds of pressure, the vitality of youth, and the blessings of every moment.

People still celebrated Christmas and the holiday season in this year. Take someone like Roy Armstrong, a teenager who sent a message to his Mom saying:
We went "to a party that the ladies had arranged for us. They had quite a spread in the Connaught Hall & afterwards they gave a concert which was sure worth hearing. One of the ladies invited me to her home anytime I wish to go & I sure am going as, well, she has a swell looking daughter."
It was a difficult year for Roy Armstrong, but these are words full of hope.

At the end of every "bad year" there is hope. The next year is a brand new slate, bearing the image of a newborn baby. A new start. Shake off all the dust of old '16 and move on to '17.

Hope for the new year. Right? Hope for the new year, a century ago, the year 1917?

It was hard, very hard, for people to be hopeful on New Year's Eve in the year 1916. A great portion of the world was helplessly mired in a terrible war, far more horrible and destructive and futile than any war that had ever been fought before.

A lot of people died in 1916. One million soldiers died on the battlefields of Europe. In one year, the names of places and things, towns and rivers suddenly became brand new synonyms for hell: trenches, Verdun, the Somme.

And there was no end in sight.

Then came 1917. Was it better or worse than the previous awful year of 1916? In a way, it was both. It brought more destruction, anguish, and futility, and something new beyond all of that: the collapse of Russia into an unprecedented kind of revolution and the dawn of a new system of human power dedicated to fundamentally altering the very structure of human nature, by whatever means necessary.

Yet on the night of New Year's Eve a hundred years ago, Vladimir Lenin was smoking cigars on his terrace in Zurich. He was a balding intellectual living in exile in Switzerland with nothing but notebooks full of scrawl, a head full of dreams, and the mysteriously faithful Nadya Krupskaya to listen to his rantings and sew the holes in his socks.

1917 was destined to be one heck of a year for Lenin.

War dragged on in Europe, while in America the man who got himself (re)elected President in 1916 by promising to keep the United States out of the war (his slogan, literally, was "He kept us out of war") very promptly brought America into the mess by April of 1917.

Roy Armstrong, after his Christmas in England in 1916, spent the following year on the Western front with the Canadian Expeditionary Force until he was killed in battle on October 30. He was 19 years old. He never had the chance to get to know that swell girl. Neither did millions of other men of his generation.

The violence of the war intensified into a relentless slaughter even as Russia fell into chaos. Yet 1917 also gave us a new hope.

Three peasant children in a small town in Portugal saw a woman in white who promised peace. She told them that people must pray the great prayer that ranges over the life of Jesus and the birth of the Church, the prayer that was like the New Testament in a string of beads that the most humble person could hold in their hands, that could awaken the message of the Gospel in the mind of a child.

In the year 1917, the world was given a promise for which they were invited to pray. Pray for peace. Pray for Russia, the land of so many tears, so dear to the heart of the Mother of God. Pray the prayer of the Gospel with Mary. Enter into her way of "dwelling on everything in her heart." Pray the Rosary, pray with Mary the Mother of God, the Mother of hope.

But the invitation was drowned out by the guns of war and the ambitions of men. We know the fruit born of this negligence.

Yet Mary did not forget her children. In time she led God's People into her prayer; she raised up her own heroes in the darkness, especially the man in white who was felled by a bullet and soaked in his own blood but didn't die, the man who taught us how to pray, how to be Christians--indeed, how to be human beings.

In our time Russia has been relieved of the long horror of totalitarian communism but remains in turmoil, and much of the world that the Great War created a hundred years ago is now collapsing in ashes and blood. The land we call "the Middle East" is hemorrhaging, its ancient cities in ruins, its peoples driven to wander the roads of the world in desperation.

In the West, we have become more callous to murder and murderers, more corrupt, more foolish because "we know not what we do." Love is lost to us in ambivalence, buried beneath our astonishing wealth and comforts and the vast new powers that we don't understand how to use.

Thus we have arrived at the new year of 2017.

We still long for love. We are desperate for love. There are moments of clarity in events, in life and death, when love shows itself to us like burning fire. How can this kind of fire become the light and warmth of our days?

We now stand at the beginning of 2017 wondering whether love will really prevail, wondering where we can place our hope.

The place of our hope remains the same, and the promise of 1917 remains to be fully realized in our historical time.

We need to pray, to enter more into the heart of Mary's prayer, to be drawn into the light that heals us and can help heal the world.

2016 was a difficult year, and yet the promise still lives, the hope stands before us. Now it is the year 2017. Let us pray.