Well, the New Year has come! We have welcomed it in, largely with food, fizz and fireworks, and offered good wishes.
January 1st is, however, very much a rootless occasion. That is to say it is not grounded on any substantial event or memory. The date has no inherent message. Christmas is rather different since Christmas is rooted in the celebration of the birth of the Son of God and the offer of human salvation. The Jewish New Year as it is presented in the Old Testament is also full of meaning. The first month of the Jewish calendar (Abib) was set aside by God to mark the deliverance of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt and it included the Feast of Passover. Thus for the Jew the New Year was a memorial of deliverance, of a new freedom and of an assurance that God was their God and would be with them. It spoke of hope.
The Church of England calendar marks January 1st with the Circumcision of Jesus since, as was customary, that ceremony took place eight days after Jesus’ birth. It is not intended as a “New Year” event, and those who are aware of such a festival are an infinitesimal few, even in the church!
The Anglican calendar does not start, however, on January 1st. It actually starts several weeks before Christmas, and it starts with the season of Advent. Advent is the real start of the church year. That can be seen by a quick glance at the Anglican Prayer Book. And when we look at the message of Advent we really do have something substantial with which to begin a New Year!
“Advent” means “Coming” and the message of Advent is simply “Get yourself ready for the coming of the Lord” and “Put your hope in Him”. That is a great attitude, a very positive attitude to adopt as we gather ourselves together and face the uncertainties of the future.
The opening prayer on the first Sunday in Advent goes directly to our fundamental need: “Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light”. These words are a direct quotation from Romans 13 which is one of the set readings which follow the prayer. Thus we are reminded that at the beginning of the “liturgical” year it is time to take stock of our lifestyle. We dare not go into an unknown future without the cloak of righteousness. If God should come in judgements (as seems all too likely) then only the cloak of righteousness will mark us out and bring us his sparing grace. So “Let us walk honestly as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but putting on the Lord Jesus Christ”. These are deep, serious resolutions made with a recognition in mind of the enabling grace of God.
The opening prayer of the second Sunday in Advent prays that “we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” through the diligent reading of the Scriptures. That will be an incredibly important mindset for the increasing numbers of those facing persecution in this coming year, as well as those facing the deepest challenges of life. The foundation of true hope is always in the promises of a faithful God.
It’s all rather more sobering and strengthening than a bottle of Champagne!