Over a hundred years ago there was a rural cemetery down South with a number of different types of inscriptions carved on the tombstones. Some were very elaborate, giving the person’s name and including remarks such as “Beloved Husband, Loving Mother, Noble Parents,” and so forth. Others were tragic, such as “He died too young,” or “May she finally find peace.” Still other contained epitaphs which attempted to summarize the person’s life. One said, “He will be missed by everyone who knew him”; another inscription read, “She was noble and heroic in life and death.” There was one tombstone for an ordinary man who had lived a good, long life, and on it his wife had arranged for a few simple words to be carved which summarized how he had lived. The inscription read, “He always appreciated” (Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, p. 264).
This idea is what a simple woman of good common sense wanted to remember about her husband: the fact that he always appreciated everything she did for him. This, in her eyes, made his life a success, and made his memory cherished. Understanding life in this way has a lot of value, particularly in terms of faith. Almost everyone who has religious faith desires, among his or her other goals and resolutions, to come closer to God. One of the best and easiest ways of doing this is simply by appreciating all His gifts.
Who, among all the saints and religious figures of history, is closest to God? As everyone knows, the answer is Mary, whom we honor today as the Mother of God. The reason she achieved greater spiritual growth than anyone else is hinted at in today’s Gospel. We’re told that Mary kept all the things that happened in her heart—one translation of Scripture says that she “treasured” them. In other words, the Blessed Virgin recognized and appreciated all that God was doing in the world around her and in her life. She reflected on the way God’s plan was unfolding; she humbly consented to be part of it, and she praised the Lord for His goodness to her.
The Book of Numbers speaks of receiving God’s blessing. Mary was greatly blessed because she had developed a tremendous capacity for gratitude. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle speaks of receiving membership in God’s family. Mary is the foremost member of this family because she was truly open to His gifts and eager to use them in His service. Mary achieved spiritual perfection not merely by being free of all sin; she actively searched for God in everything she did, and she never failed to thank Him for the many blessings He bestowed upon her.
The great author Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “The person who has stopped being thankful has fallen asleep in life.” Our Lady was never spiritually asleep; she was always aware of and grateful for the Lord’s blessings. This attitude of thankfulness was an essential factor in her ongoing spiritual growth, and the same thing can and should be true for us. New Year’s Day is traditionally a time for making resolutions; one of the best resolutions we can make for the coming year is to be more aware of and grateful for all of God’s many gifts to us. Like the man who lived down South over a hundred years ago, we should appreciate everything other people do for us—especially the members of our own families. It’s not sufficient to keep this sort of gratitude to ourselves; we have to express our thankfulness, letting others know that their efforts are recognized, and that their presence makes a difference. Doing this not only encourages others to continue their acts of service; being grateful also makes us better persons and allows us to become more spiritually alive.
Like Mary, we have many things to keep and to treasure in our hearts. We should thank God for the privilege of being Americans, Catholics, and members of our families and of this parish family; we should praise Him for His mercy and kindness, for our membership in His family, and for the presence of His Son as we gather here for the Eucharist. It can be a very good and helpful thing to look back at the year just ended and to reflect on the blessings and gifts we’ve received, and to look forward to this coming year, asking for God’s grace to make good use of the opportunities it holds.
Whatever else may or may not occur in this coming year, we can say with certainty that 2012 will bring us one year closer to our personal encounter with God at the moment of death, when we’ll be asked to give an account of how we’ve lived our lives. 2012 should also be a year of continued spiritual growth and of preparation for the day of judgment which all of us will experience. Being grateful and appreciative is an easy and practical way of moving in this direction. This was true for Mary in the most wonderful and perfect way imaginable, and it can also be true for us.