With sincere apologies to the lovely folk who have invited me over for this evening, I have never liked New Year’s Eve. It has always felt to me like a manufactured holiday: a time when we artificially gin up emotion around a transition that is no more momentous than the falling of any other evening and the waiting for the next new day. Perhaps that’s because it’s not tied to anything that I believe in. It does not coincide with the solstice, which would at least align it with the darkest night of the year and the beginning of the new light. It does not line up with Christmas, the dawn of our salvation, nor with Chanukkah (a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, but one which marks a new beginning of holiness and a reconsecration of the people to the Lord). It’s an arbitrary date picked by the Gregorian calendar, first introduced in 1582 and then gradually adopted across Europe and its colonies. (And, yes, that does mean that for quite a while there were two different calendars in use simultaneously, and, yes, two different reckonings of the start of the New Year.)
The church honors it as the Eve of the Feast of the Holy Name, formerly known as the Circumcision of Christ. In Jewish custom, male infants are circumcised on the eighth day, a ritual that sets them apart for God, marked in their very flesh.
A number of years ago, I was privileged to attend the circumcision of the son of a neighboring rabbi. The baby, which was beautiful, was the surviving member of a pregnancy which had begun as a set of twins, one of whom had perished before being born. And so, as we gathered in a crowded room, there was a tone of deep gentleness, tears of grief as well as words of joy. The couple carried their child to the mohel amid nervous laughter, then turned away as the deed was done. But then an extraordinary thing happened: someone lifted the boy and carried him to a large chair, almost a throne, and laid him in it. It was Elijah’s chair, dedicated to the prophet who was to come again as a forerunner to the Messaih, and in that act, the gathered community expressed its hope that each male baby born to them would bring in a world of holiness and peace.
Perhaps that, then, is a way into the new year: that deep hope that would lead each one of us to seek the face of Christ in every new person that we meet. This is a difficult thing to do: it requires us to cultivate a spirit of deep reverence, to seek the best in one another rather than holding onto our memory of the ways in which each of us has failed.
And yet, like the friends gathered at that circumcision, we also carry with us grief for those we have lost: whether people we see no more or hopes for ourselves that we must let die. Those, too, are encompassed in God’s mercy, and they require us to be tender with one another.
And it would require a discipline of hope. We usually think of hope as an emotion, but it is a thing we can cultivate in ourselves — not foolishly, but resting on the promise of Christ, that the worst is never the last, but that, in the end, grace and mercy are the chords that lie underneath all this revealed world, and all we cannot yet see.
Have a blessed, holy and joyful New Year, and may we find Christ in one another.