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Another year is dawning

20 December 2013

Martyn Percy offers reflections on the turning of the year

HARDLY a month goes by without some sort of celebration for a new year. The Church celebrates the turn of the year at Advent, the first Sunday of December. Other religious traditions, with lunar or solar calendars, celebrate their new year at a time that is quite distant from 1 January. Schools and colleges begin their years in September. The financial year of commerce and business often starts on 1 April.

Secular and sacred constructions of time have all found a way of saying "Out with the old, and in with the new." Even in a culture where time is linear and progressive, we need the cyclical rhythm that allows us to break with the past, and embrace a new future.

So, despite all the partying that surrounds 1 January, it is important to remember that it is an arbitrary date to end one year and to begin another. Yet the celebration has a pivotal quality. It is a temporal space where people can reflect on what has been, what already is, and what is to come. It is a time to look back, but with an eye on the future. For many, the date marks a time for resolutions; pledges of self-denial and self-improvement briefly abound. People scan astrological predictions, trying to guess the coming year. I prefer the Old English proverb: "Man plans, God laughs."

For others, 1 January simply marks the end of the annual season for visiting relatives, and ushers in several days of intense consumerism before mundane routines kick in. Sometimes, as in 2004 when the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami killed almost a quarter of a million people, the year ends with tragedy and uncertainty. When lives and futures are swept away by the tides of disaster, what is there to hope for as the year turns?

In the Christian calendar, 1 January is also the feast of the Circumcision, when the Church remembers Mary and Joseph's taking Jesus to the Temple, in fulfilment of the law. The day reminds us that, in Christian tradition at least, we no longer face the future alone. If the message of Christmas is that God is Emmanuel, "God with us", then the feast of the Circumcision is the proof.

Previous generations of Christians attached great importance to the day; for they saw it as the evidence that Jesus really was flesh and blood in a way that his birth had not fully revealed; on this day, he bled at the beginning of his life, a sign of his covenant with our lives, and his solidarity with human nature. Here is the first sign that God understands our frailty and pain.

So, while welcoming in the New Year, we might reflect on how God has chosen to speak to us. It is a time when many are looking for clear directions, or for answers to those questions with which tragedy confronts us. And so it is that in a culture where clarity and certainty are so obviously craved, God reminds us that he has indeed sent us a message.

But it is not one that is easy to read. For it is not a text; nor is it a clear and obvious clarion call, precisely defining the future. It is, rather, the gift of a child, a baby that giggles, smiles, and laughs; and also cries, sucks, pukes, poos, and pees.

Is this a joke, I ask myself? That God should come among us not as an articulate adult, but in a defenceless, vulnerable form? Yet it is precisely in this unexpected incarnation that the wisdom and love of God are truly revealed.

Here we come face to face with all that matters. And God laughs, because, as anyone who has ever had a child will tell you, a tiny inarticulate infant is utterly absorbing and demanding. If we can pay attention to that child, the love we give will be returned sevenfold.

But, in the mean time, all resolutions and plans are on hold. God has come among us as a tiny child. And we will have to put time into that relationship if we are ever to hear him speak his first words.

There is a Christmas prayer I love that says: "Your cradle was so low that shepherds could yet kneel beside it and look level-eyed into the face of God." The shepherds did just that. It is what we are invited to do: to look at this child, to ponder this scene, and to see the love of God; for the face of the baby is the face of God. So there are no obvious answers to life's questions at this point. But God does, at least, smile back at us from the cradle.

This is an edited extract from Thirty-Nine New Articles: An Anglican landscape of faith by Martyn Percy (Canterbury Press, £16.99 (CT Bookshop special offer £14.99  - Use code CT853 ); 978-1-84825-525-8).

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