We tend to have this magical thinking about New Year’s. The calendar flips to January and anything is possible! “New Year, New You” and “The Best Is Yet to Come” are plastered all over social media feeds and ads for yoga studios. After a particularly grueling year, though, I couldn’t buy into the lie anymore. January will be just like all the other months, I believed—slogging along toward where I want to be and who I want to be, with many stops and tantrums and setbacks and renewed vows along the way.
That year I found a different perspective—and one that justified my curmudgeonly attitude—in a New Year’s sermon by Calvin College professor Jamie Smith. He pointed out that New Year’s is an entirely secular celebration—in fact, he claimed it is one of secular America’s last remaining rituals.
Smith compared it to Mardi Gras and Lent—go all out and “sin boldly” on New Year’s Eve, because come January 1, it’s all about penance and sanctification. We sign up for gym memberships and every food blogger is posting recipes for salads—in the dead of winter. We make resolutions, we resolve to exercise daily, to quit smoking, to wear more color, to keep a cleaner house. Smith said Christians get caught up in the ritual as well, but we tend to spiritualize our resolutions. We’d like to be more intentional parents, more others-focused, more generous, less gossipy.
But, Smith pointed out, there is a jarring disparity between Advent—the church calendar season leading up to Christmas—and the popular beliefs surrounding New Year’s. Advent is all about waiting for a God who comes to us, who gives himself to us, this undeserving and weary world. But then New Year’s trots out and we’re back to believing we can do anything (New Year’s resolutions rely heavily on the not-so-Christian cultural ideals of individualism and heroism, according to Smith). We resolve to grit our teeth and lose the weight, or gain the virtue.
That’s just like us, isn’t it, though? We are hushed, reverent and wonder-filled at Christmastime, breathing sighs of relief that a savior has come, that God pitched his tent and dwelled among us. But come December 26, the lights dim and we hear shuffling onstage as the manger is carried away. When the lights go on again—Hey! It’s the me-show again, the human-show; the We’ve-Got-This-Covered-Thank-You and the Humanity-Will-Save-The-World numbers are performed all over again. Shimmying resolutions and high-kicking diets; self-help books are singing the high notes and fitness gurus are doing the splits.
Where did that tiny baby go, the one who is God with us, the one for whom the weary world rejoiced? Where did that weary world go? It put on its makeup, took a deep breath, and decided the show must go on. We can’t wait for that baby God to make good on his promises. Our hearts had ached with desire just a month ago when we heard that “He will save his people from their sins,” but in January we say, “What sin?”
Traditionally, Christmas doesn’t end immediately after December 25. Instead comes the season of Epiphany, when the church focuses on Jesus being revealed to the nations of the world, symbolized by the story of the Magi, those three wise men who followed a star from the East to find the baby Jesus and give him gifts.
Epiphany is a much better fit with Advent than our New Year’s rituals. Instead of turning the spotlight back onto ourselves the second the Christmas tree hits the dumpster, what if we turned our eyes to the stars and held onto the wonder of Jesus, the hope of the nations? Instead of jazzercising our way to being better people, what if we left all that is familiar and journeyed toward the God who came to us? And when we meet him we offer a gift, not of frankincense, gold, and myrrh, but the only gift we have to bring: our small, broken, beloved selves.
The New Year extravaganza will crest and crash over us like a wave, and when it is swirling around our feet in late January, leaving us no different than before, we will look up at the vast sky full of stars that blink out their eternal message to us: “A savior is born.” We will find him in the most unlikely of places, when we have eyes to see him, and we will lay our gifts—ourselves—at his feet, to be saved from our sins once again, to receive his blessing, warm as grace, breathed on our foreheads once more.
*Originally posted here.
What about you? What are your thoughts and feelings as we transition out of Christmas and 2014 and into the New Year?