New Year’s. A date on the calendar to mark new beginnings. New diets. New exercise programs. New commitments to those things we know we should be doing but we aren’t.
I suspect most of these things are in our own best interest. Sometimes we might even include commitments to our relationships with others. All in all, what we are striving for is to make the coming year better than the last.
It’s odd, don’t you think, that we single out one day in the year for all this improvement. I suspect the infrequency of this enterprise may have to do with our distaste for change. After all, things wouldn’t be the way they are if we hadn’t acquiesced to the existing state of affairs. Either we are actually satisfied with life as it is, or we are just lazy.
But, here we are, January 1st, again making resolutions.
I find it curious that this phenomenon is typical for both religious and nonreligious folks. Once a year. Resolutions. And then life goes on. But in the Christian world, at least, there is another narrative, one we often forget. It’s a narrative that is expressed most simply and most clearly in Revelation 21:5: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (The “one on the throne,” in case you aren’t familiar with the text, is God.) God is about the business of making all things new.
You might have noticed that, unlike a magician, God doesn’t seem to be zapping the world into the perfection we’d all wish for. So, how is all this newness coming into being? Perhaps a nuanced look at the question would reveal several nuanced answers, but I see two main ways. The primary one is through evolution. The other is through humans willing to work for transformation.
The evolutionary part is taking care of itself in a slow and steady way. We, on the other hand, tend to do our part in fits and spurts. While the world offers us a New Year’s, the church calls us to daily “self-examination,” “repentance,” and “amendment of life.” The assumption is that outward change begins with inner transformation. And since we have capacities for altruism and selfishness, the world isn’t going to change for the better without our more than once-a-year efforts.
Certainly no one has to be a churchgoer, much less a “believer,” to grasp the veracity of this. We all know folks who have never set foot in a church who live moral, ethical and compassionate lives. I for one, however, need help. I need a structure that calls me to the work that I am less than inclined to do on my own. I need a set of practices that challenges me to look at myself, that holds me accountable for more than just myself and that shows me a way that supports and nurtures my best self. And I need that more than once a year.
It’s true that religion can be used by power-hungry people for nefarious purposes. Religion has within it, however, a heart that beats for the well-being of not only the individual, but for all of creation. At its best, religion offers hope for humanity. Not simply hope that the way things are becomes a better version of the way things are. Religion offers hope for a new world that is borne of renewed hearts and minds. And religion, at its best, acknowledges that that takes work, that it takes commitment, and certainly that it takes more than one day a year.
Leigh Waggoner is a retired rector at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.