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It suits me that Christmas and the New Year are so close together. Christmas is God’s gift to the world of a second chance: a new opportunity for each of us, no matter how wretched or hopeless our lives may have become. The Babe in the manger is God’s invitation to put our past behind us, to trust that 33 years after that first Christmas, Jesus forever paid the price for the worst that mankind can do, and that – if you and I are willing to accept it – He will on the appointed day present us blameless before the throne of God. Thus our death becomes not our demise, but our birthday into eternity – judgment is set aside and we are freed to become everything that God imagined for us from the beginning.
So how appropriate that the very next week after Christmas, we have the gift of a New Year – if we will but receive it. There it is, stretching out before us like the snow-covered yards of our youth, the driveways, sidewalks and roads of a small, sleepy village in the early morning hours after a night of snowfall. Fresh, clean, uncluttered, sparkling and quiet – all the things that our adult lives are not, all the things that we want so desperately for them to be. A new year is God’s annual down payment on the ultimate promise: Behold, I make all things new. Yes, even us, provided we can summon the grace to accept it.
Strictly speaking, I suppose that God is not really necessary for human beings to fulfill the promise of a new year on this earth. We are very clever creatures, and we have some remarkable accomplishments to our credit. We have produced real beauty in the arts, in music, in literature. We have developed the tool of science, with which we have explored the earth and the universe it inhabits. And, more recently, we have unlocked the secrets of the human genome.
But I worry about these accomplishments. Our entertainment today seems violent and unsatisfying. We have the technological savvy to develop and use marvelous tools. Yet, as in our individual lives, we often apply them in troubling ways. Science was born of belief in an unchanging God who operated the physical universe in accordance with never-changing laws, which mankind could discover. But we have used science as a tool to deny the Creator’s existence. We have unlocked the secrets of the atom and an infinite supply of energy, yet we live under the tyranny of our knowledge as it falls into the hands of those without a conscience. And we have unraveled the human genome, rolling open the scroll with the blueprint for humanity itself. Will we tomorrow live in a disease-free world, or one shared with the creatures born of egotistical tinkering by men and women without conscience?
So I wonder, as the snowfall transforms my backyard, about the new year stretching out ahead, soft, undisturbed, a sparkling clean slate upon which to write another year of my life. How many of my good intentions will be fulfilled? How many of my bad habits will re-emerge to steal the life that might have been? How many new years do I have remaining? What will happen to me, if my footsteps trail off in the wrong direction, and before I know it another precious year is gone? They pass more quickly now … paradoxically, each one more valuable than the last, for none can ever be replaced.
I crave the guidance of those wiser than myself but, with age, I see that through the passing of time their wisdom has often been transformed into foolishness, their mark in the world covered over by a single quiet evening’s snowfall, their grave forgotten and untended. Yes, should I will it, I am the captain of my fate – the master of my destiny. And then, like the grass, I wither and am gone. A few short years played against the backdrop of eternity. Surely a comedy.
And yet, 2,000 years ago, our world was cleft apart, and today the Cross still casts its haunting shadow across the backdrop of eternity. The sum of those new years allotted to each of us are lived out in either the shadow or the light of the Babe born in Bethlehem, depending upon which side of the Christmas story we stand. Age makes it easier to confess that I do not have all the answers – and could use some help. Good has not triumphed nor evil been banished – because both dwell within me. “Physician, heal thyself.” But of course, none of us can. Which is why God gives us Christmas, and the down payment of another new year.