Happy New Year in the Midst of Death? How Can This Be!
Updated: Jan 1
As I tip my glass and happily announce the dawn of a new year tonight, I am deeply aware of the fact that many others tonight will find it terribly hard to do the same. They will be people who have recently lost loved ones to this dreadful virus. Hope will be in short supply for many tonight. Even as the vaccine offers a glimmer of hope, we realize that it comes too late for 340,000 Americans and many more globally. It’s not that we would be worry free if there were no virus. The world we live in is plagued by racial inequality, poverty, sickness, and death. For many, it is always hard to welcome a new year. As I celebrate tonight, how should I be praying for them? It’s not that I won’t celebrate; I must to do so. But on what basis do I do so and on what basis do I extend well wishes (in word and deed) towards them?
The Christian Gospel answers this question head on. In fact, it compels us to ask it. One thing that strikes me as I read the Christian story involving Christ is that it has hope beyond the dark veil of death at its very core. Going back to Christmas, one finds the prophet Simeon at the Jewish Temple telling Mary as she dedicates the baby Jesus that a sword will pierce her soul (Luke 2:35). This is surely a reference to the death of her Son that she will witness much later in life (cf., John 19:25-27). Now, the announcement that Mary’s heart will break because of the destiny of her son may seem out of place at the event of her son’s child dedication! But not at this child dedication, because Jesus was born to die. The cross lies at the horizon of Jesus’ birth narrative. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was born as human precisely to die, in fact, to conquer death on our behalf, so that in him we may pass from death to life (Hebrews 2:14). In fact, in becoming flesh and going to the cross to suffer death for us, Jesus locates God right there in the deepest pit of human helplessness and despair, right there where our need for God becomes clearest. Ultimately, the hope that comes at Christ’s resurrection does not come from us but is a gift from the hand of God. It is not of our doing. It is God’s doing, which means that nothing can overturn it or take it away. It can only be received gratefully in faith and shared with others who cannot see beyond the despair that death has brought them. The Gospel of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the new life he offers us even now, will allow them to see beyond it. And that seeing too is a gift. I am helpless to reach it. Only God can show it to me. This is what I will hope for them tonight as I celebrate, and for me too. This is not something that we see once and for all time. We must be able to see it again and again, as the sorrow of death pierces our own souls too.
The new year celebration in the light of the resurrection of Jesus thus points to something beyond the relative victories and joys of this life (weight loss, a new job, etc.) as important as they may be. The Gospel points to a newness that defies death itself, that helps us find over time the strength of mind and soul to see a light beyond the deepest sorrows that this life can throw at us. It gives us the strength to be agents of life wherever we can, knowing that death’s days are numbered. How fitting is it that we should find God this way, at a cross, at the event that reveals humanity’s helplessness and God’s gracious help. This is what I will pray tonight for all who face their own darkness—that they will find God there too, and in finding God there, find hope.
Happy new year.