The Both/And, the Before/After, the Then/Now, the Regret/Renewal…aka New Year’s Day.
My two children, my father, and I, we really lived it up for our New Year’s Eve last night, I tell you what.
While watching “The Return of the King” from the Lord of the Rings trilogy with us, Dad made it to 8:30. Karl’s eyes got droopy at about 8:57, so I got him tucked in and conked out by 9:21. E and I snuggled in to a couple of Sherlock-Behind-the-Scenes episodes, which carried me through until 11:17, and Else (I think) slogged on ’til 12:01, after I tucked her upstairs in bed–that was her plan, anyway. As she’s still snoring now at 9:01, I don’t yet have confirmation that she pulled off her feat, but I’ll bet she did, as she’s a night owl like her papa was.
Clearly, we aren’t exactly carousers, here at the Madsen household. In fact, a “Pâ-TÉ” is the closest we ever get to having a “Par-TAY!”
(That’s not really true: I just thought it sounded funny. Actually, I positively hate liver).
So I have mixed feelings about New Year’s Eve, I confess.
I don’t like the drinking associated with the night, and because of that, I don’t like driving anywhere on the 31st either.
I don’t like crowds and loud music: watching the big celebrations on Times Square or in big bar scenes with hoards of people bumping into each other just makes me look for my cozy slippers all the more.
But I do like our customary table spread of New Year’s treats.
I do like curling up with my family whom I love so much.
I’ve even been known to like a tender New Year’s kiss.
And I do like the new beginnings the evening promises.
And I do like clearing the slate.
See, the thing of it is, of course, is that New Year’s Eve makes you look both forward and back.
That can be both unpleasant, and sad, and discouraging..and also gratifying, and hopeful, and emboldening.
New Year’s Eve, that is, is a bittersweet reminder that time moves forward, and that matter (and matters) always change.
Reading up for yesterday’s blog on the Massacre of the Innocents, I stumbled on another great contribution in the book Social Themes of the Christian Year: A Commentary on the Lectionary. This one was written by feminist and historical theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, in a chapter called “The New Year: A Time for Renewal.”
In it, she gives a marvelous account of how New Year’s festivals–even if they didn’t fall on our customary one of December 31/January 1–held similar meaning to ancient peoples as our celebrations do to us.
Of course, because their cultures were more religious than ours, the day held cultic significance for them in a way that the day doesn’t for us. Given that the people were also more communally agricultural than are we, the rhythm of planting and harvesting and dying and re-planting was the backdrop for the New Year rituals. “In this annual cycle of seasons, humanity saw the mirror of the whole drama of life, death, and renewal of life, both in nature and in society…Each year’s cycle was a miracle that required the intense participation of the divine and human communities to make it happen,” (56-57).
But the ancient Hebrews also incorporated a sense of judgment into the marking of the New Year, she writes, an intentional time to mark the wrongs one has committed against neighbor, and also then the occasion to forgive the debts–both economic and moral–so that there could be fresh starts: “Repentance, forgiveness, restitution allows society to be renewed,” she writes (58). In this way, every new year enacted the first creation all over again.
Order out of chaos, life out of death, beginnings out of endings.
Jews and Christians still claim this heritage, this trust that life can be renewed and reinvigorated and redefined and reclaimed.
“The theme of New Year,” writes Ruether,
“is that of crisis, but also new hope; of acknowledgement of sin, but also celebration of grace. New Year allows the church to tie together, in a particularly inclusive way, the themes of old and the new, the Beginning and the End…New Year calls us to judgment, exposing our failure to love God by rejecting love for our neighbor. But New Year also calls us to new hope. Death is not the end of the story. Grace is possible. It is already present among us. God’s coming reign is already in our midst. New Year demands a rejection of that ‘realism’ which insists that evil is stronger than good and that nothing really can be changed. This is the ‘realism’ of the comfortable status quo, which wishes to snuff out the hopes of the poor because these hopes entail an overthrow of their own systems of privilege…In this sense, the gospel, the hope of the Bible, the hope of New year, is ‘unrealistic.’ It dares to continue to hope for a coming reign of God against the realities of human sinfulness,” (61-62).
I like that a lot.
I like her words here not least of all about the death-dealing world-doling-out realism that snuffs out of the hopes of the poor: the poor being those who are economically impoverished, but also (given the gist of her overall chapter), those who are poor in spirit, poor in gladness, poor in energy. Rather than drawing upon such realism that, as people of faith, we call out as unreal, those who are privileged by a wealth of good spirit and gladness and energy–not to mention finances–can be ambassadors of faith-filled hope to those who are, in fact, impoverished in any number of ways.
As a Lutheran, I can’t help but come away with this notion (again!): Lutherans are nothing if not all about the both/and of life: sinner/saint; already/not yet; Good Friday/Easter.
As I’ve often said, you can’t beat that the closest we Lutherans have to a saint is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist assassin!
We get that life is messy. That there are competing truths. That there are moments when despair and hope, sadness and relief, anger and gladness mingle.
That’s what New Year’s, it seems to me, is about for people of faith: the juxtaposition of the both/and, the before/after, the then/now, the regret/renewal.
It is an occasion to decide if we will be defined by the past or by the promise of the future; if we will be beholden to mistakes of the last year or the possibilities of repenting and redeeming them in the next; if we will let the hurts and disappointments and anger of the last year be more potent than release and forgiveness and the possibilies of moving on; and if we will let the negative events of 2016 hold more sway than God’s desire and invitation to be involved in our 2017–or, for that matter, in even this very moment.
The New Year’s table may have been set by 2016, but it will be served by 2017.
As people of faith, God is wanting to be the host of the party…which promises to make 2017 bearable if not better than 2016 (which, by most accounts, let’s be honest, tanked).
I would prefer, however, that there be no pâté in it.