A new day

The days are getting longer now, they say. Ten days ago was the shortest day, and now the nights are getting shorter. I can’t see it yet, it’s still getting dark too early in the afternoon, but I trust those who have observed the courses of sun and moon and stars and determined that we are indeed tilting and circling toward spring. Every afternoon, for a few more weeks, I’ll be telling myself, ‘The days are getting longer now; hang in there.’ It’ll be a little while before the bright day when George Harrison’s ode to the sun will start playing in my soul and I’ll again sing along,

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right …

I don’t know how they celebrate Christmas in Australia, Chile or Zimbabwe where it’s the beginning of summer now – to me, it seems just perfect to celebrate the birth of Christ, the birth of the light and life of the world, when the nights are long and cold, and the days are short. All of nature surrounds us with metaphors to express our deepest longing: for the sun of righteousness to rise, for God’s mercy to melt our frozen hearts, for the Spirit of life to light up our imagination.

I remember hearing an astronomer on the radio, talking about New Year’s Day and how totally random it is. It’s just a random moment on Earth’s journey around the Sun, with no relation whatsoever to anything astronomically significant like a solstice or an equinox. This astronomer also mentioned that as a graduate student he once spent an entire New Year’s Eve party locked in a closet by himself, in protest against the sheer arbitrariness of the occasion. I hope somebody brought him a glass of champagne at midnight and gave him a kiss. It’s good to mark and celebrate beginnings together. We’ll be in 2017 for just a few more hours, and then we’ll count down the seconds to the start of 2018. We wish each other a year of good health and prosperity, peace and happiness, and we resolve to do or quit doing all kinds of things. We know, of course, that every day is a new day and that we can decide to become a better version of ourselves any waking moment but New Year’s Day is like a global reset button: let’s all start over and let’s make it our best year yet.

It was probably the Moravians who began the tradition of Watch Night. They got together on New Year’ Eve, hours before midnight, and standing on the threshold between the years, they recalled the previous year’s events and thanked God; and turning from memory to the unknown they prayed for God’s protection and guidance in the new year. Watch Night was an exercise in prayerfully receiving the gift of years from God and returning them with gratitude. The practice was adopted by the Methodist church, and it gained particular significance in the African Methodist Episcopal church. You see, astronomically, January 1 may well be a completely random spot on the Earth’s journey around the Sun, but historically, it marks a great moment.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate States, it was to become law on January 1, 1863. And on December 31, 1862, African Americans, slave and freed, all over the United States, gathered together in their churches and homes, watching and waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight. They and their ancestors had been captured in Africa, kidnapped, bound, and locked in chains. Whole families, even villages, disappeared. Husbands and wives, parents and children were separated, never to see each other or their homes again. Shackled and packed into the holds of cargo ships, they were taken to the Americas and sold into slavery sold into a lifetime of violent oppression, forced labor and every kind of abuse.

And now it was Watch Night. What did they do in the South? Speak of their hope with hushed voices, whisper their prayers, holding their breath while their lips yearned to burst into song? Might not their masters descend on them at any moment? After all, President Lincoln’s declaring their freedom didn’t make it so in the eyes of their owners. And the Civil War would drag on for another three years.

But this was Freedom’s Eve, the darkness before dawn. This was the night of their passover, their journey from the house of slavery to the promised land. And so Frederick Douglass, the pioneer abolitionist, declared, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” December 31, 1862, Freedom’s Eve: the prayers of generations finally answered, the long darkness before dawn finally illumined by first light.[1]

After the joyful testimony of the angels and shepherds at the birth of Jesus, Luke takes us to Jerusalem, to the temple, where Mary and Joseph have brought their child to present him to the Lord. And here we meet Simeon and Anna whose entire life has been Watch Night. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, has lived his years looking forward to the consolation of Israel. And Anna, a widow of a great age, has devoted most of her life to fasting and prayer. The two have shaped their lives around the promise and the presence of God.

They are bent by the years, I imagine. Their backs hurt, their swollen joints hurt, climbing stairs demands all their strength, and on their way across the temple courtyard they stop several times to catch their breath. They are bent by the years, but only outwardly; inwardly they live on tiptoe. They are Advent people, open to God’s promise, open with anticipation, open to the guidance of God’s Spirit. Their eyes and ears may no longer be what they used to be, but they have been watching and waiting for the Lord’s Messiah, they have been looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem, and their whole being has become receptive to the presence and the deeds of God. And when Mary and Joseph bring in the child Jesus, Simeon is there to take him in his arms and he praises God.

Picture the old man with the baby. Notice his joy, the way he gazes at the little one; you can’t tell if his laughing or crying.

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

But what has he seen, really? It’s just a little child he’s cradling in his arms. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching he might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. The world looks as it did before. It’s business as usual in the houses of the mighty and the makeshift camps of the poor. But Simeon stands there in grateful wonder. He knows, the long Watch Night is over. His whole being is illumined by first light. He is cradling the consolation of Israel in his arms. He is looking at the salvation of God, he is touching it with his hands. He can die in peace. And then Anna, a prophet, also approaching the end of her days, adds her own joy and praise to the moment. She’ll be telling all who are watching and waiting for the redemption of life about this child.

By the time the grown-up Jesus begins his ministry, Simeon and Anna will be long dead. So will most of those shepherds who went with haste to see the child in the manger. Thirty years or more will pass before the gospel story resumes with the baptism of Jesus. In the meantime the ones who saw the baby, who knelt at his bed of hay, and who made known what had been told them about this child, would not know what became of him. They would know only what they had heard and seen back then.

We too are people who have seen something but not its full unfolding. What we have, in a sense, is hardly more than they had. We have the scriptures that school us in hope and attentiveness. We have stories and testimonies. We have the memory of moments, when the tender compassion of our God has come close enough for us to see and feel. We have something like the shepherds would have had, recalling all their lives a night of mysterious glory.

And we have the rest of the gospel story. We know what happened to the man the baby grew up to be. We know his radical compassion. We know his teaching and the pattern of his passion and vindication. We have sat at his table. We have seen and tasted the promised future. Like Simeon and Anna, we may not get all the way to his future ourselves, not in this life but we have seen it, and because we have seen it, we can go in peace, knowing that the kingdom and the power and the glory of God have come in Jesus. [2]

It’s a new day, a new beginning, not because our planet has almost completed another circle around the sun, but because the Lord has come to set creation free from all bondage. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] See https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-artika-r-tyner/celebrating-the-153rd-ann_b_8882614.html and https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/watch-night-of-freedom

[2] My thanks to John K. Stendahl, “Holding promise,” The Christian Century 119, no. 25 (December 4, 2002), 17.

 

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