Happy New Year!
No doubt you've heard that greeting many times over the past few days. Perhaps you stayed up late on December 31 and greeted 2019 with kisses and toasts, or maybe you pulled the covers over your head and slept the old year away. Maybe you've made a list of resolutions for the this year, or perhaps you've chosen one word to guide you in the months to come. But one thing's pretty certain: you've been exposed to the word "new." A lot.
We love the promise of newness, don't we? A blank slate, a fresh start, a reboot—these ideas appeal to us like few others.
But as I contemplate the start of this new year, something has started to bug me.
As I think back on my Bible study and meditation for last month, everything pointed to the coming of Christ. The whole season of Advent was meaningful for me, as I reflected on the promise of Immanuel—God with us. I tried to put myself in the place of the ancient Israelites, watching and waiting for the Messiah. The old stories rang fresh in my mind, full of promise and hope.
And then on Christmas Eve, gathered with friends and family for a special service, I celebrated the coming of the Christ child into the world. "Joy to the world; the Lord is come!" we sang as we raised our lighted candles high into the air. Just like every year, we marveled how those little candles made the darkened sanctuary so full of light when they were all held aloft together. Indeed, the Lord had come; we could feel it.
But now, a couple of days into the new year, we're ready to put all the Christmas stuff behind us for another year. We take down the decorations. We throw out any leftover treats. We hang new calendars and get ready for the business of making ourselves new.
Up and at 'em! Make your goals! Get yourself organized! Make it happen! The message of Christmas may have been that the Lord had come, but the message of New Year's seems to be that it's all up to me.
Already, just a few days into the new year, I'm weary.
Over the centuries after the coming of Christ, church leaders developed traditions to keep people's thoughts fixed on Him. As I was growing up, I knew next to nothing about these traditions. Because they aren't mentioned in the Bible, our church didn't observe them. I had never heard of a "church calendar." The very idea would have seemed preposterous.
In the church calendar, the new year begins with Advent, the season of waiting for Christ. Then it moves into the season of Christmastide, which lasts all the way to January 6, a day for celebrating the visit of the wise men. "Epiphany" is the name for the celebration of that day, when the baby Jesus was first recognized by Gentiles as God incarnate. In the mid-19th century, William Dix wrote a special hymn for Epiphany:
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold,
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright;
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led to Thee.
Isn't that a wonderful prayer?
In these days of endless new-year-new-you messages, the idea of a church calendar doesn't seem preposterous at all. It seems like just what my soul needs.
Oh, I'll take my decorations down. I'll hang my new calendar up. But this year I'm choosing to remember that the celebration of Christmas is not just for December 25. We celebrate Christmas not just because Jesus was born, but because He lives and reigns. The promise of Immanuel was first for the people of Israel, then for the whole world. God himself is with us.
I don't have to make myself new this January. God himself is with me, and He is making me new. When I'm tempted to despair, I remember "though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day" (II Corinthians 4:16). The work of creating a new me this year is being done by the One with the strength and power to do it.
It's the old, old story, and it's what I need for the new year.
How about you?