New Year 2021
The beginning of the new school year was always exciting, although the prospect of not being in pyjamas all day and watching TV was a bit of a bore. There was the hope of a new start, new teachers who hadn’t worked out your little tricks, new classes which hopefully that annoying child wasn’t in and you were a year older, there were more people to boss around. And at the secondary school I attended just round the corner from where we lived, the best change was from year 11 to year 12, lower sixth, because I started having free periods, I didn’t have to do Maths or Science ever again and sixth formers didn’t have to wear the school’s awful purple blazer. Bliss.
That school year began in September, of course. And Jewish New Year is celebrated in September/October time too. September comes from the word for seven, even though it is the ninth month in the year, which is a reminder that many of the months of the year come from the era of Roman Empire, which originally began the year in March. We along with most of the world use the Gregorian Calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, who in 1582 revised the calendar to take into account that the length of the years hadn’t quite been calculated correctly before: a year is meant to be the same length as it takes the earth to orbit the sun. We in England, having just had the Reformation, didn’t like the idea of a Calendar organised by a Pope and so stayed on the old calendar for another one hundred and seventy years until we caught up with the rest of Europe.
You may or may not find all this very interesting, but I hope it proves that there isn’t some magical formula that is going to recalibrate existence at midnight. There’s a danger, like with all superstitions, that we are in danger of inserting a false, magical force into what we think determines our lives. Whereas in reality, God is supreme over all things and He’s determined that some things are right and others wrong. He’s made us rational beings responsible for our own decisions. And there will be external forces we must weather through gritted teeth or accept for the free ride they give us.
So, we mustn’t put our trust in 2021. We can only put our trust in God. There is no record in the Scriptures or in history that I can think of, where something bad existed on 31st December and by 1st January it was not a problem. We’re in an unusual situation this year because there will be a tangible difference between today and tomorrow because our transition out of the European Union is more or less at an end and the deal negotiated by the EU and the UK Government comes in to force. I don’t really understand enough of the detail to know what difference that will make but it is a definite change, especially for those engaged in trade and commerce. The pandemic and the restrictions, both of which continue to destroy lives, will be no different tomorrow. Our hope here lies in the continued administration of the vaccine, discovered and manufactured by human beings given the skills they needed to do so by a generous and all-powerful God.
The main units of time in the Scriptures are not the calendar year, but the day and the week. The hymn “Great is thy faithfulness” was written by Thomas Chisholm, a Methodist who became a minister but whose health was so bad he had to resign within the first year. The words are based on Lamentations 3:22 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning: great is your faithfulness.” This book, Lamentations, is usually said to be written by the prophet Jeremiah and is personal expression of sorrow in response to the destruction he had seen. If we were sad when Churches were closed during the lockdown, imagine the sorrow of seeing our Church burned to the ground and we might begin to understand how the people of God of old felt when they saw Jerusalem destroyed. Often hope is expressed as something in the far distant future: one day it will be alright. The sentiment in Lamentation 3 is different: His mercies are new every morning. Perhaps when things are so bad that you can’t imagine them ever getting better or seeming too far off, it is better to focus on the gift of the new day, the sins forgiven, the heart that still beats.
We can consecrate each day with prayer, making the sign of the Cross at the start of each day, perhaps using one of the last six psalms in the book of Psalms which focus on praising God, saying Morning Prayer. In contrast, the end of each day is a time for sorrow of our sins and making confession. The Psalmist in Psalm 91:5, 11 links the night to fear: “You will not fear the terror of the night … for he will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” Each night is a little death, the link brought out poetical in Bishop Thomas Ken’s hymn:
“Teach me to live, that I may dread
the grave as little as my bed;
Teach me to die, that so I may
Rise glorious at the awful day” (Hymn: “Glory to thee, my God this night”)
There is a point to each and every day: the day is the essential element of life and not one of them should be wasted. In our Gospel this evening, Jesus instructs us in what our object is to be: setting our heart on God’s kingdom and His righteousness. He encourages us to consider two comparisons: the birds and the flowers in the field. The exhortation is not to idleness because it was thought rather that the flowers and the birds had to work very hard for the little reward they had in terms of the production of beauty, security and comfort. The lilies in the field are not in some luscious, idyllic English meadow. These are flowers growing on brown land that bud for only a few weeks of the year at most and then perish. The prophet Isaiah, quoted by St Peter, speaks of plant life similarly: “The grass withers, the flower fades” (Isaiah 40:8 and I Peter 1:24-25). In contrast, we’re to work for that which endures.
On 1st January, the Church celebrates the Motherhood of Mary. St Claire encourages us: “Let us cling to Jesus’ most sweet Mother who bore a Son whom the Heavens could not contain and yet carried Him in the little cloister of her holy womb and held Him on her lap.” I love this image of the immensity of God, all-powerful and eternal - and not just a messenger or an angel of His - coming to dwell in something pretty small, the womb of a teenage girl who then held Him in her arms. Holding any tiny baby is a pretty huge responsibility; imagine holding the Word made Flesh!
A couple of times we hear in the Gospels that Mary pondered what she saw Jesus do and she treasured these memories. You can imagine Mary sharing these stories with a holy joy with St Luke, who then wrote them down in his Gospel. I’m probably quite bad at treasuring moments which are good: there’s always the pressure to rush on to the next thing. But maybe treasuring moments is a key to this approach to hallowing each day and not letting one slip by that we see in teachings of Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer focuses on the day at hand: “Give us this day our daily bread,” which picks up the image in the Old Testament of the manna given in the Wilderness of which enough for the day and no more than for that day was to be collected. Today at the altar, we receive the graces we need for today. Let’s value each day of this new year as the platform on which God has called us to give Him the glory. Amen.