The Dawning of a New Year…of the Same

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – January 1, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67:2-3, 5-6, 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

(1) The Wellspring

I don’t know if you remember what happened at the beginning of 2020, just in your own life, those first few months before things went crazy. I remember that a few weeks into January, my friend Fr. Isaac and I spent a week up in the Flint Hills, next to this very old ranch house, in an even smaller and older house. And that was a real gift, because that week seemed timeless. Little did we know what this year had in store for us, for our Church, for the world.

At this ranch house, beneath the house, flowing out from under this house for over a hundred years, there was this spring of water. All twelve months of the year, it flowed out from under the house and created this stream. Even in the middle of January, there were bright green plants growing in the water of this stream, this wellspring. We spent a long time praying and reflecting together on the “stream of living water” that the prophet Jeremiah spoke of (c.f., Jeremiah 2:13). We prayed with the closing scene of the Bible from the Book of Revelation, where we hear that, in the end, God restores all of creation—New Heavens and New Earth! And the image used, for how this comes about, is a stream of “the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city [of the New Jerusalem]. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (c.f., Revelation 22:1-2).

There at the beginning of the year, we had these profound insights of the mercy of God, flowing like a stream, renewing all of creation, healing as it went.

(2) “The Shelter”

One of those days we watched an episode of the Twilight Zone—hopefully some of you know what that show is. It was just on TV, and so we watched it. And the episode was called “The Shelter.” It’s about this little neighborhood, and the people are all super friendly and super pleasant (think of Derby), and life is great. But it’s also the early 60’s, and people are freaked out about the nuclear missals. One of these families has built a bomb shelter in their basement. And so, as the story unfolds, there is an announcement of an unidentified object. The government tells everyone to go to their shelters. And, as you might have guessed, everyone starts trying to get into this one family’s shelter—which is only built for that one family. And as the threat looms larger, neighbors turn on one another, they start saying what they really think, threatening, even breaking into this family’s shelter to take it from them.

Then the threat of attack is called off, and everyone calms down again. They start apologizing, saying they didn’t really mean all those terrible things they just said. They apologize for threatening this man and his family, for taking over his shelter. But the man says, “We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder…I wonder if we were destroyed even without it.”

It’s been said that a “crisis doesn’t change people: it amplifies who they already are” (Mark Mason). One person was reflecting on this past year and said, “Adversity seems to bring out not necessarily the worst in people, but the essence of people. In my months working in retail during the pandemic, I’ve noticed my cranky customers get even meaner. The pleasant customers have gotten more friendly, understanding and compassionate towards our challenges. The generous ones have been leaving even bigger tips than before this whole thing started” (Jim). The crisis didn’t change people: it amplified who they already were. We have lived in this illusion that we’re all fine, “I’m a good person.” And yet, when the threat came, what happened?

(3) The Mercy

In this year (and I don’t need to remind you), we’ve seen the best in people, we’ve seen the worst in people. We’ve welcomed new children into our families, and we’ve seen many members of our family, many of our friends pass away. I don’t think any one of us here have been spared the suffering of this year.

And yet, as I look back on the year, my thoughts continue to return to that little stream, flowing out from under that house, watering those little plants, all twelve months of the year. This year, “so full of suffering for us…suffering that [even] still overwhelm[s us at times], [this year] was yet a severe mercy” (Vanauken). That little stream continues to flow, to give life. The Lord continues pouring out his life. Did God cause the pandemic? Is the pandemic some cosmic justice? No. God has not stopped being faithful to us, God has not abandoned us. The stream continues to flow from His throne, twelve months out of the year.

But in his mercy, we have been allowed to pass through this year, and to be reminded of our own frailty, our own dependence. The prophet Jeremiah said that, even though this stream of living water continues flowing, continues to give us life, sustain us, heal us—Jeremiah says we often do two things: We forsake “the spring of living water,” we go looking for water somewhere else; and we dig our own cisterns, “broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). In other words, we start looking for something that will sustain us and give us life in all the wrong places; and then we place all of our hope in things which cannot give us what they promise to give us. We forsake “the spring of living water,” we go looking for water somewhere else; and we dig our own cisterns, “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

(4) The Light

In this New Year (just like every New Year), we ask for the Lord’s blessing to come upon us. We beg the Lord to continue to be gracious and merciful to us. And if you think about it, it’s kind of a ridiculous prayer: God can only bless us, be faithful to us, be gracious and merciful. That’s all he can do.

But we ask, we pray, we beg that we will be allowed to experience it. In a purely sociological and psychological and biological understanding of this year, it sucked—it was not good. Yet, in the tender compassion of our God, the Dawn from on high has continued to break upon us, shining on those who dwell in darkness and death, and guiding us into the way of peace.

It’s true. Often, we are undone by our humanity. We break with distance, with separation. And things don’t go as planned, as hoped. And we can feel so alone. It gets so dark, and sometimes we almost wish it was never light. And then, in one moment, one precious moment, “a light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). A child is born to us. And they named him “Jesus,” which means, God saves. And he continues to save.

Throughout this year, the stream of living water flowing from the throne of God continues to flow. It pours out water, it brings healing. In this New Year, may the Lord continue to bless you and keep you, let his face shine on you and show you his mercy, look upon you kindly and give you peace (c.f., Numbers 6:24-26).

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