My times are in your hand; deliver me. (Psalm 31:15)
“Let me be the first to wish you a happy and blessed 1984.” This first salutation of the New Year was given, two minutes after midnight, by Bishop Desmond Tutu to several hundred Episcopal college students and campus ministers gathered at a snowy retreat center in the Rocky Mountains. He was preaching at a eucharist begun in the final moments of 1983. The gospel reading, spanning the stroke of midnight, accompanied our entry into the year of Orwellian dread, 1984. Then the bishop’s genial greeting at the start of his homily broke the fatalistic spell cast by the 1949 novel. Orwell’s terrible future had not come to pass. Instead, a man stood before us speaking eloquently and authentically about hope and possibility. A few weeks later he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. The God of history is yet capable of surprise.
But it remains an act of faith to believe this in earnest. Walter Benjamin, a German thinker in the darkest of times, gave a chilling description in 1940 of the “angel of history,” who can see nothing but the terrible past as he is swept backward into the future:
His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. [i]
As we contemplate the wreckage of 2014, we might well share Benjamin’s despair. But there is another angel, the angel of possibility, who knows better. This angel says: Do not be afraid. Whatever twists and turns the story may take, it is in the end a story of life, not death.
And every New Year’s Eve, we ritually renew our faith in that story. There is an element of carnival this night, as we throw off the tyranny of good order for a bit of wild excess, declaring independence from the way things are in the name of things to come. But the night’s underlying theme is not chaos but renewal, as expressed in the traditional English carol:
The old year now away is fled, the new year it is entered…
Now, like the snake, your skin cast off… and so let the year begin.
This festival of rebirth, ringing out the old, ringing in the new, reflects an abiding human rhythm. Whether it’s every morning or every December 31st, we bid farewell to our flawed efforts and bad habits, resolving to do better this time around. Taken in isolation, New Year’s Eve has a whiff of doubt if not desperation. We know that the midnight noise and kisses will soon fade into the hangovers and broken resolutions of January’s new morning.
But New Year’s Day is also the eighth day of Christmas, the festival of Incarnation. What wants to be born is not a project of our own making, doomed to wither in the wintry blast of time. The Babe of Bethlehem is not the cartoon baby draped in the banner of “2015,” deposing the old man of “2014” in a melancholy preview of its own ultimate fate 365 days hence.
The holy Child is the Lord of the Dance “that will never, never die.” Yes, this new person will share our mortal condition; he will live and die as one of us. But in so doing he will accomplish what we can never do on our own. He will make our own stories part of the divine Dance. He will guide our own steps into the way of peace.
People often fuss about whether Christmas is pagan or Christian, secular or sacred. But the whole point of Christmas is that it is now impossible to tell the two apart. Ever since “the great angel-blinding Light” shrank “His blaze, to shine in a poor shepherd’s eye,”[ii] what George Herbert termed “Heaven in ordinarie”[iii] is the way this Dance goes. When the Christmas festival fades like Scrooge’s transformative dream, we will all return to habitual place and ordinary time. But if we have paid any attention at all, nothing will be quite the same again: neither ourselves, nor the world, nor the flow of time.
God with us. This changes everything.
On this last day of the year I rose early and went outside to see the stars. Orion, winter’s dominant constellation, had already left the stage. Leo, who rules the western sky on spring evenings, now roared in his place. To gaze on the night sky before dawn is to behold the future. Standing in the cold of winter, I looked upon the constellations of spring. And to complicate the metaphor, the starlight itself was a message from the distant past.
Time is a mysterious gift. Past, present and future keep changing partners in the everlasting whirl of the Dance. Breathless, we do our best to keep up. As W. H. Auden put it, “if there when grace dances, I should dance.”[iv]
The poet also wrote perhaps the best New Year’s Eve line of all, which I commend to you with my wishes for a most happy and blessed 2015:
Time is our choice
of How to love
[i] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, q. in Hugh Rayment Pickard, The Myths of Time: From Saint Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 75
[ii] Richard Crashaw, “Satan’s Sight of the Nativity,” in The Roads From Bethlehem: Christmas Literature from Writers Ancient and Modern, ed. Pegram Johnson III and Edna M. Troiano (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) 148
[iii] George Herbert, “Prayer I”, George Herbert: The Country Parson & The Temple, ed. John N. Wall, Jr. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981)
[iv] W.H. Auden, “Whitsunday in Kirchstetten,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 559
[v] “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems p. 297. This remarkable work, a must-read for the Christmas season, was performed live before the New Year’s Eve eucharist mentioned at the beginning of this post. Auden reminds us that, once we have seen the Child of Incarnation, our challenge is to redeem the “Time Being” from insignificance.