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
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
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
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
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
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
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).