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Ring Out the Old

It was December 31st, and a few close friends were dripping cheese fondue on my coffee table as we waited to say an enthusiastic goodbye to the ending year. It had been a hard one. I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my tinsel crown couldn’t conceal my baldness. My best friend had been fired unexpectedly. Another friend was reeling from a betrayal that shattered her marriage less than six months after it began.

We were celebrating a clean break with the old, and ready to rush into the new.

We were doing what millions of people have done since Julius Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the civil calendar to honor Janus, the god of new beginnings. Janus traditionally had two faces, allowing him to look forward and backward at the same time, and alleviate the anxieties of those in the midst of transition.

In our progress-oriented American culture, we still look to unreliable gods to serve the same purpose — and among our favorites is our seemingly endless pursuit of the latest and greatest. On the brink of the new year, we are eager to dropkick the past and plow headlong into a future we assume will be brighter, happier, more meaningful. 

I was going to join a gym and become healthier at 50 than I had been at 30. My friends were going to network more, get some counseling. We were all going to work harder to make it all work.

Yet the next morning, we woke up with the same nagging fears. We wanted a new beginning to replace a painful past, but instead we were stranded in the wilderness of transition. And transition would require integrating our pasts into our souls, which we didn’t like one bit.

Transitions can be painful and disorienting, but I’ve learned they are also the places where God shapes, humbles and ultimately meets us. Transitions reflect the cycle of death, waiting and rebirth — a supremely familiar pattern to those of us who claim to be resurrection people, for whom redemption and remembering are bound together inexorably. 

While ancient pagan culture perpetuated the jump into the new year, the Church knew something else was needed. Around the 4th century AD, the Church adopted the penitential season of Advent as the beginning of the Christian Year.

Weeks before noisemakers mark the start of the civil calendar, Advent arrives with four Sundays to intentionally guide Christians from the old into the new. This time invites us to look back in gratitude for the Incarnation, to look forward with hope to Christ’s second coming and look squarely at our present selves with honesty and grace. It is a time of spiritual reflection as well as joyful anticipation, a time of preparation and waiting.

Advent offers a much-needed rite of passage for Americans who lack rituals that teach us how to let go, make room for what is next and bear the inevitable anxiety of the fallowness in between. Most of us are far removed from agrarian cycles of growing, harvest and resting that used to serve as a ready reminder. We are disconnected from this natural pattern that resonates in the DNA of all creation.

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But we can at least recognize that in deep midwinter, when nights are long, the earth is in a season of waiting. And perhaps instead of rushing headlong in 2021, we can learn from this season.

For in God’s economy, dormancy is always the twin of productivity. Looking back is always kin to looking forward. We must let go and wait empty-handed (often confused and fearful) before we receive again.

We can look back with as much passion as we look forward, feel our disappointments, grapple with our losses and grieve what is being left behind.  We can prepare for what is coming by sitting with what has (and hasn’t) happened in the past.

In ancient Judaism, the concepts of redemption and remembering are bound together inexorably.  For contemporary Christians, should it not be the same?  Over and over again, God exhorts His people to remember. To remember His faithfulness and commandments. To remember our stories. To remember His death and resurrection as a sure pattern of our own. To remember that He is coming again in glory to redeem creation from its groaning.

Wherever you find yourself this New Year’s, consider resolving less, reflecting more and responding to God’s sacred whispers of “Remember.”

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