A new year always brings a sense of hope. The previous year with all its tragedies, problems, disappointments, failures, and sadness is now behind us, and a clean slate lies ahead.
The old has passed away; the new has come. With whistles and horns and parties, and probably more to eat and drink than we should have, we ushered in the New Year. Yet, beneath the gaiety and laughter, there’s a gnawing feeling – it’s all still the same; nothing’s really changed. If anything, passing from the season of lights and glitter and carols to the season of dark, cold, bleak midwinter, only makes the emptiness worse, the depression deeper.
For sure there has been plenty in the news to make anyone depressed. Reality seems to crush hope at every turn: the threat of another wave of Covid, crushing economic disparities in this country, the pernicious scourge of racism, the increase of global warming, homelessness in our own neighbourhood, the plague of illicit drugs, etc.
Also, many of us are feeling personal pains or anxieties this New Year. Some of us are wrestling with important decisions regarding a primary relationship or a task to be done; some know first-hand the powerful effects of disabling disease or worry about health issues in the upcoming months; some have had to deal recently with a major loss; some wonder if we can make it in the coming year without the presence of one who meant so much; some of us are feeling very lonely, in spite of people all around us; some of us fear growing older, or fear what the future may hold; some wonder if dreams will ever be realized, or whether the new year will be even more frustrating and filled with feelings of futility than the last. Many of us are feeling pain or anxiety this New Year.
When we feel this way, the temptation is to stay with the familiar and the comfortable, to crawl back into bed and pull up the covers, or to sneak into the manger with Jesus, where it’s warm, safe, and secure. The temptation is to stay where we are – in the dark crevices of depression or defeat, of fear or foreboding, in the deep ruts of sameness, boredom, or lethargy.
But Epiphany with its emphasis on a light shining in the darkness, reminds us that life continues, that revelation and growth and new beginnings loom on the horizon, that new roads appear up ahead, new roads that will take us, if we choose to let them, into new adventures, new challenges, new opportunities to be the persons God wants us to be. Epiphany reminds us that life continues, even as one-year ends and another begins.
The Magi also called the Wise Men or the Three Kings, who bring their gifts to the Christ Child, illustrate this movement. But first, a brief word about who these Magi were. They probably were astrologers from the East, perhaps from Persia or Babylon, present day Iran and Iraq. They believed that human destiny was written in the stars, and though they were learned men of their day, we would consider many of their notions superstitious today. However, it seems that they believed that human events were influenced by a power beyond this world.
Tradition says there were three of them; the Bible doesn’t say how many. In the Middle Ages they were given names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.They are nameless in the Bible.The story in Matthew is about kings and wise men, but these are people in addition to the Magi. The kings are Herod, a ruthless tyrant who stops at nothing to achieve his goals; and Jesus, a vulnerable and helpless baby, who becomes known as the King of Kings, a baby who grows up to be a ruler whose power is hidden in humility. The wise men are the chief priests and scribes, well-versed in the scriptures, who are called in by Herod to tell him where this so-called king of the Jews was to be born.
The Magi from the East are inquisitive, adventurous, obedient to their calling, and seek no honour for themselves. They humble themselves before the Christ Child and offer sacrificial gifts of great value. In short, they fit the image of servants more than royalty or those with superior wisdom, and thus, are exemplary role models for us. But it’s what they do at the end of the story that is of particular interest. Matthew says they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. In the Bible, dreams are an important conduit for God to communicate with people.
The Magi, after they have offered their gifts, realize the danger in returning to Herod, and leave “for their own country by another road.” They don’t hang around to bask in the beauty of the babe. They don’t stay where it’s comfortable and secure. They set out from there by another road, a new road, a different road than the one they’d been travelling upon. They move on in their journey of life, and so must we. For us, the manger is only one stopping place on our journey of faith. And while the tranquillity of the manger may move us deeply, it should never transfix us. The rest of Christ’s journey, and our journey, remains to be travelled.
As we embark on this New Year, embodied so well in the spirit of Epiphany and the reality of life moving on, a fair question for us to ask is, “how can we move on?” The answer may be found in the refrain from an old church camp song I’ll bet many of you remember: “Rise and Shine.” Isaiah tells the people of Israel to “Arise, shine; for your light has come…(Isaiah 60:1)” They no longer have to live in darkness – nor do we. Rise and shine, get up, begin again – there is more to come! There are new roads to travel upon in this New Year. But there are also powerful forces working against this directive. Apathy, lack of confidence, our physical or mental state, extreme caution or timidity – all these tend to hold us back. Worse than any of these is fear –disabling, crippling, and immobilizing fear.
God has promised to uphold us no matter what – believe this promise! God has promised to grant us victory over all our spiritual enemies – believe this promise! God has promised to grant us full and free forgiveness of our sins through and because of Jesus Christ, our new born Saviour – believe this promise! Don’t creep upon these promises as though they were too fragile to hold you up. Stand upon them, confident that God is as good as God’s word, and that our living, loving Lord will deliver them as promised. So, in this New Year, let’s get up and get going. Let us rise and shine, knowing that it is God’s light that empowers the light within us.
This sounds like a great New Year’s resolution, doesn’t it? But it won’t be complete until we finish the old camp song’s refrain, and “give God the glory.” We do this by living thankful lives, thanking God for the blessings we’ve received, and by sharing the Good News with others. We do this individually and together as the church. The mission of the church, as Paul implies to the Ephesians, is to reflect the light of Christ, to point to Christ’s work in the world, to declare Christ’s redemption, to reveal the mystery, to make known God’s wisdom, but perhaps most important, to mirror and imitate Christ’s love and deeds of mercy. And this is our individual mission as well.
Each of us has a new road ahead of us in the New Year. It’s another road, a different road than any we’ve travelled on before. As we step off down that road, not knowing what we may find, not knowing exactly where we’re going, we can be comforted in knowing that for sure, the light goes with us, leading us, guiding us, showing us the way. God will be with us on our journeys down that new road ahead. Even now God is calling to each of us, whoever we are, whatever our circumstance, calling us to continue the journey, giving God our praise, and sharing the Good News with others along the way.
Two great leaders of our times come to my mind who took a different route in their life’s journey than the ones we travel normally- that of peace instead of violence and reconciliation instead of alienation.They are Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis, Head of the Catholic Church.
Archbishop of Canterbury Most Reverend Justin Welby visited Jallianwala Bagh, the site of British colonial era massacre which took place on 13 April 1919, and said it was a “deeply humbling” experience and provoked “feelings of profound shame”. The massacre took place at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar during the Baisakhi festival in April 1919 when the British Indian Army under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer opened fire at a crowd staging a pro-independence demonstration, leaving scores of people dead.
Pope Francis took part in events to commemorate the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation during his trip to Sweden. The Pope appealed to Catholics and Lutherans to “mend” history and look with honesty at the past, “recognising error and seeking forgiveness”. By tradition, on 31 October 1517 the German theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church. The papal visit kicks off a year of events to mark the quincentenary. Pope Francis and Lutheran leaders presided over an ecumenical prayer service in Lund cathedral in southern Sweden on Monday. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church praised the Reformation for helping to give greater centrality to scripture in the church’s life. Luther’s pamphlet attacked excesses and abuses within the church, and his actions and writings were hugely significant in the schism which developed in Western Christianity, which became known as the Reformation.
A New Year’s Eve poem I came across concludes with these words: “With courage we face the future, with warm memory we sing the old year out. With hope in our hearts and voices we face the sunrise of God’s new dawn.” So, let’s sing the new year in by singing together the refrain of that old song:
“Rise, and shine, and give God the glory, glory,
Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory,
Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Children of the Lord.”
May hope dwell in our hearts and voices, and May that sunrise, the light of Christ, shine brightly on each of us as we journey on the new road we’ll be travelling upon in this New Year. Amen.