'Argh! Just ten more minutes!' It's 6 am, and already I'm in the throes of a heated battle with my alarm clock. My outstretched hand slams down on the snooze button, the only ally I can count on in this daily grudge match. It takes another three rounds in the ring for my conscience to finally leap into action, prying my unwilling eyes open with a few short, sharp pangs: 'Didn't you promise yourself that you'd be getting up early from now on?' Fine! I surrender!
Of all the promises I make to myself, the annual New Year's resolution proves to be especially brittle. Yet every year I get caught up in the same 'New Year, New You' shtick. Enticed by the promise of a clean slate, I convince myself that when the clock strikes midnight, the world will once more become my oyster. Every bad habit and mistake of the previous year will evaporate, and I will be free to become the best version of myself. Of course, it only takes a week for me to be struck down by the cold hard reality of my own weaknesses. Getting out of bed at six? Come on! I've never been a morning person! Exercise regularly? But Netflix just released a new season of my favourite show!
Amid the lights and good cheer of the Christmas season, it's easy to forget that achieving our goals requires much more than good will and a foggy notion that we want to be a better person. So often our resolutions remain superficial, merely treating the symptoms of our restless hearts, rather than taking aim at what we truly desire. And there's the rub: If we don't know what will make us happy, it's likely that we will never be satisfied. We wouldn't even know where to start!
That's why I'm glad the feast of the Epiphany falls so close to New Year's Day. The end of the Christmas season provides a pertinent blend of joy and sobriety, allowing us time to put aside our discouraging attempts at self-improvement and to ponder what it will really take to fulfil us.
It begins with knowing what we want. The Magi knew what they were seeking and why. Following the light of a star, they made the arduous journey to the land of Israel, there to offer themselves in worship to the infant king of the Jews. Of course, they could not have known what they would find until they got there. Imagine their surprise to find that the star has finally led them not to a palace, but to the squalid lodgings of a poor, unassuming couple.
Anyone else would have turned away in disappointment; we have made a mistake, there is no king here. But it is not for nothing that these men are called 'wise'. Despite the accidents of his birth, the Magi recognise the manifestation of God in this tiny child, and in an act of trust, they offer themselves in worship along with their most precious gifts.
This unique encounter with the divine proves to be a truly transformative experience. When the Magi lay what they had at his feet, they leave something of their old self behind, and in doing so have found what they had always been looking for. This is recounted beautifully at the close of their story. Their journey home would have originally taken them back to the house of Herod, the seat of power and violence in the land. Instead, they choose to 'return by a different way,' the way of light and peace. Where once they were guided by a star, they now become the first of the Gentiles to carry a little of the light of Christ within them, to further make him manifest when they return from their travels.
Perhaps it is in the example of the Magi that I can find the motivation for all my future resolutions. One of the most pertinent lines of the Second Vatican Council can be found in paragraph 24 of Gaudium et Spes: 'Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.' If this is truly what our hearts desire, then the first thing I must do is to ensure my goals are aligned towards this attitude of self-gift.
Of course, none of this come cheap. Just as Christ gave himself even unto death, our daily lives require a constant overcoming of ourselves, a daily death. For me, that death begins with an incessant beeping at 6 am, and then in a thousand other little ways throughout the day. But it is the only way that we can truly become who we were born to be. It reminds me of T.S Elliot's wonderful poem, The Journey of the Magi. I reproduce the last stanza here, but it is well worth a full read.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Mark O'Shea is a teacher and editorial assistant living in Melbourne.