Well, we’ve gone and done it again—finished one year and started another. I always have the impression when I give a homily on New Year’s Day that I’m not going to make it to the next one, yet somehow I always do, though I’m quite certain that one of these years my impression will actually be true!
As each year comes to an end, I also have the impression that I’ve just barely “escaped the snare of the fowler,” that I’ve survived the sorrows and sufferings of the previous year only on a wing and a prayer. So what is going to happen this year? It’s going to be something of an apocalyptic year, I think. I’ll be turning 50 this year, so that surely means that the world will soon be coming to an end. The Feast of Annunciation falls after Easter this year, another rather bizarre event. Ushering in the collapse of civilization as we know it will be the presidential election toward the end of this year. So, we have a lot to look forward to!
Even though New Year’s Day is a secular feast, and there are other reasons on our liturgical calendar why we’re having a solemn Divine Liturgy today, there is a kind of “theology of the new” that is worth reflecting upon at this time. This doesn’t mean a “theology of new, untested, untraditional, and untenable ideas,” but rather looking at the mystery of newness in light of the good news of the Gospel. Christ is the New Adam who has inaugurated the New Covenant through his death and resurrection, so that we can, through the Holy Spirit, “walk in newness of life,” as St Paul says, and eventually find our way to the New Jerusalem coming down from Heaven in the glory of God, who says: “Behold, I make all things new.”
The first day of the new year is significant not only for marking time or having a party or getting a day off from work. The irruption of the New into our weary “oldness” is a sign of hope, an influx of energy (hopefully the Uncreated Energy that is Divine Grace), and a motivation to persevere. It throws back the towel to us that we have thrown in, and says, “Get up and fight; you can do it!” It’s easy enough to collapse into a blob of dejected jelly after a long year of hardships and disappointments, but the arrival of the new brings with it a whispered promise of better things to come—or at least better ways to deal with whatever is to come! Like it or not, we still have to get up every day and face the music, leaving the comfortable world of unconsciousness for the land of the living, where lives are made or broken, where souls are saved or lost. We are there, and we have a role to play, a mission to accomplish, and miles to go before we sleep. We will have to account for the choices we make in 2008, the acts we place, the words and thoughts that proceed from within, the fruit we bear—or not—the talents we multiply—or not.
So the coming of the new year is not a time for dissipation and juvenile frivolity, but for regrouping, re-vitalizing, and setting our sights on the accomplishment of the will of God in the situations in which He will place us. This is why we are celebrating the Divine Liturgy and not cracking open a keg of beer! The Liturgy is, of course, a joyful celebration, but this joy grows out of a serious commitment to the truth of the Gospel, to receiving and sharing the love of God which upholds us on our perilous pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us have open eyes concerning the times in which we live, and not mindlessly play the fiddle while Rome burns.
This year will be an important one, as the tensions mount in several ways: the conflict between the new and best-selling breed of atheists and those who are trying to keep Christianity and its values high-profile in this country; the conflict between those who call themselves Catholic but do not believe or practice as the Church requires—and who still dare approach the Sacred Mysteries—and the leaders of the Church who are entrusted with the stewardship of the Holy Eucharist. There are other conflicts in the Church, like that between those who uphold the traditions of the Church and those who want to lead the Church down the deceptive path of new-age adulteration and quasi-paganism. And the geopolitical tensions that increase between the Middle East and other Islamic countries with the countries of the increasingly unstable West. Much more can be said, but you get the picture. Decisions will have to be made that will affect us all.
Now we may not be directly involved in world events or in high-level decisions of the Church, but we do have a role to play, and on the spiritual level this takes place primarily through prayer, fasting, sacrifice, fidelity to the sacraments and the other elements of spiritual life. We don’t have to sit on U.N. councils to influence world events. For the Lord God is the Creator and Savior of the world and He has the power to work all things for the good, even when things look like they’re going bad. To a certain extent, perhaps a quite large extent, He relies on us, on our union with Him through prayer and sacrifice, to bring his grace to bear on the persons and events shaping this world on the “horizontal” level.
And here we finally get to the readings for this feast. First of all St Paul warns us in the Letter to the Colossians (2:8-12) about the need for purity in the true faith. This is the bedrock of our spiritual life and hence of our spiritual influence in the world. He writes: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by empty philosophy and deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” There sure is a lot of empty philosophy and deceit out there, and people worshiping the spirits of the universe and claiming their personal divinity, even daring to use the holy name of Christ to describe the source of their bogus spiritual transports. But that is not according to the true Christ, that is, Jesus Christ, who actually lived and died and rose from the dead and who sits at the right hand of the Father and who is coming to judge the living and the dead!
We are celebrating the feast of the circumcision of Christ, and you might think that circumcision has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here. But St Paul doesn’t think so, because he immediately brings it up in the same passage from Colossians. Circumcision involves a cutting away of something, for the sake of inclusion in the people of the covenant. In a spiritual sense, he goes on, the sacrament of baptism is for Christians what circumcision was for Jews. It is our incorporation, by immersion into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection, into the Body of Christ, the Church, the people of the New Covenant, the New and Final and Everlasting Covenant.
But Paul speaks of circumcision not only in a sacramental context but in that of faith, which is the context of our daily spiritual life. We still have to cut away that which is not of Christ, whatever tends to cling to us that belongs not to Christ but to the world, to those “elemental spirits of the universe,” and to our own unredeemed tendency toward selfishness and sin.
Christ submitted to circumcision in his “new year,” the very first few days after He was born in this world as a new human being, to show that He wished to save his people as a member of his people, to show that the promises made to his people of old were true and that He had come personally to fulfill them—even at the price of suffering. His life was marked with the shedding of blood from the very beginning, but this was his will, out of love for us. As powerful and enduring as his words of preaching and teaching were, they were insufficient to draw the whole world out of its darkness and stubborn sin. He had to go to the Cross; only his complete sacrifice in love and obedience to the Father’s will would be sufficient to atone for all the sin of the world.
Let us not, then, fear the sacrifices which fidelity to Jesus require. Let us courageously cut away all that is not of Him: “circumcise our hearts,” as the biblical saying goes. Only thus will we have the wisdom and the strength to face whatever the new year brings, and we will make our personal contribution to the advancement of the peace and the salvation of the world. God is counting on us—the true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who makes all things new and who prepares even now the New Jerusalem for those who shall be judged worthy to enter his glory. So, as we are exhorted in the Letter to the Hebrews, this is no time for drooping hands and weak knees; make straight paths for your feet, run the race with perseverance, strive for the holiness without which no one will see God. This is really the only way to have a happy, blessed new year.