The Eve of the New
‘…Therefore, let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food or drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. They are only a shadow of what is to come…’ (Colossians 2, 16).
For New Year’s Eve to fall on a Sunday can be a preacher’s nightmare – especially one bound by the liturgical calendar. While everybody else’s attention is focussed on the festivities surrounding the turning of the year the preacher is having to find something relevant to say as a way of celebrating the ‘Feast of the Circumcision of Christ’. I wonder what you would choose to hear a sermon on – ‘New Year’, or ‘Circumcision’. Indeed, as far as the church is concerned, the celebration of the turning of the year is an irrelevance…and so a piece of doggerel from Ogden Nash is as good a way in to any sermon on the subject…
Tonight’s December thirty-first,
Something is about to burst.
The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.
Hark, it's midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year!”
Originally, measurement of time centred on the moon, with the spring equinox – around beginning/mid/end of March being the earliest accepted ‘date’ for the ‘New Year’ – Julius Caesar moved to a solar calendar (Julian) and shifted the date to he Kalends (1st) of January. However, ecclesiastical authorities in the early middle ages shifted the date back to March 25th – the Festival of the Annunciation – until 1582 when Pope Gregory shortened the year by 10 days, reregulated leap years and gave us the Gregorian Calendar, reinstating January 1st. But then there has grown up more recently the tradition of watchnight services – such as we will hold this evening, the earliest example of which can be traced back to the Moravian Christian Community in what we know now as the Czech Republic in the 1730s. The Wesleys were heavily influenced by the Moravians and John Wesley introduced Watchnight, or Covenant Renewal Services into Methodism from 1740 onwards…’The services provided Methodist Christians with a godly alternative to times of drunken revelry, such as New Year’s Eve.’ Whilst in North America it is thought that the history behind such a service can be traced back to the time when on New Year’s Eve 1862, Afro-Caribbean slaves, stayed awake, watching the night, waiting for 1st January 1863 when it was said that the Emancipation Proclamation declared by Abraham Lincoln would be signed into law. And there is the tradition amongst Scottish seafaring fishing communities of women watching the night whilst their men were away fishing, waiting for them to come home safely, and of course many did not.
- So, in essence, there is nothing for me to say other than to encourage each and all of us to appreciate that there are times in our lives, and they needn’t all have to conflate down to one particular day in the year, but such times are necessary; times when we need to renew and be renewed; a cycle of progressive renewal – not change for change’s sake because if all we do is find ourselves dancing to another’s tune, then we will risk having changed beyond recognition; but neither, - if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – because if we don’t act then there will come a time that we will find ourselves so broken that we will be beyond fixing.
- Freedom to be is at the heart of what it means to be human. Slavery of one human being by another human being strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. And so, we should do what we can to help in any way those who find themselves enslaved and are themselves waiting for their own ‘Emancipation day’. Traffiked slaves lie awake at night – watching, waiting, hoping, crying, praying to be free – many hundreds of whom live in this city of London. Abused women and children, similarly; as well as so many enslaved by addiction, habit, guilt, all of whom just want to be free – watching and waiting, waiting for their deliverer to come.
- And there will be those for whom today, like any other day, is a day for watching and for waiting – watching and waiting for the prodigal to return; waiting for the telephone to ring, watching for the post to be delivered, looking for elusive e/mail or text message; those from whom we have become estranged, with whom we have lost contact, those whom we wish were with us, but circumstances prevent it from being so. But more pertinently there are those form whom we have allowed ourselves to become estranged, those with whom reconciliation is within our grasp, and more particularly within our gift…
“As we did every New Year's Eve we made ridiculous resolutions that no one would keep, and quietly we all wondered what the coming year would hold, each of us praying for our own private miracles. Good health. Better health. A marriage for this child, a good job for another. This hopefulness was something hardwired into our psyches, that a new year might mean some monumental something wonderful could happen to bring us happiness at a level we had never known. A new year was a chance to start over. Maybe even, just maybe, there would be peace on earth for one entire day.” (Dorothea Benton Frank: ‘The Last Original Wife).
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