Ransomed from worst cast scenarios.
I welcomed the New Year last night in Norwich, New York, a small town near Binghamton where my sister and her family have a house. It was not a wild party by any means. Two of my nieces had departed earlier for Manhattan, to be there in time for not one, but several parties they would attend to mark the arrival of 2017.
As we neared the countdown last night, I tried to recall the first time I consciously celebrated the occasion. I was probably 5 years old. I think I begged my mama to wake me up at midnight, so that I could celebrate it with her and my dad and my sister who was 9 at the time. She did so as promised, gently kissing me multiple times until Mr Sandman reluctantly departed, and then ushering me into the living room where the TV had its cameras aimed at the ball in Times Square. On the coffee table there were a variety of pots and pans from the kitchen, and several large ladles and spoons. I wondered if we were going to cook something in the living room. As the announcer’s voice grew more excited and was almost drowned out by the growing noise of the crowd, my mother drew closer to me and explained what we were to do when the New Year came. When the ball reached its destination at the bottom of that pole, we opened up the windows, and as the cold January air rushed in, we took a pot or pan and banged it loudly with the ladle, yelling as loud as we could, “Happy New Year, Happpppppy New Year, Happy New Year!” bang bang bang bang bang, “Happpppppy New Year.” Behind us on the TV, Guy Lombardo and his orchestra played Auld Lang Syne, and my mother and father and sisterhugged and kissed me, wishing me a Happy New Year as we wished the whole world the same with the music of our pots and pans.
I was wondering how they did it in Jesus’s time. As a Jewish family, they undoubtedly celebrated Rosh Hashanah—probably in the fall, at the end of the harvest time--and they would eat honey to start the year off sweetly, and fish heads (or gefilte fish) so that they would finish the year ‘ahead’. And I can imagine Mary bending down to whisper in Jesus’ ear an explanation of how they would always blow the Shofar, a loud instrument made out of a ram’s horn, to welcome the new year with joyful music. Maybe Mary got Joseph to show little 5 year old Jesus how to put his lips to the shofar and attempt to make it sing out into the cool midnight air, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, Happppppppy New Year, everyone, Happppppy New year!
Back home in my sister’s guest room after our 2017 celebration, I picked up a book someone had given me for Christmas—it’s called The Worst Case Scenario. It’s one of those humorous books that are at the counter at the bookstore, tempting you to buy it as a stocking stuffer. This book tells you what you need to do to survive dire situations, like an alligator attack, or falling through a sidewalk grate, getting your tongue stuck to a frozen pole, or giving birth to a baby in a taxi. It had lots of good tips---I really enjoyed reading about how to leap from a moving motorcycle to a car, and how to remove a wad of paper that gets stuck in your child’s nose. There was one that would have really helped me earlier this year: how to unclog a toilet you just used while visiting in someone's house...without a plunger anywhere in sight. But even though I enjoyed reading all these disaster scenarios, I thought maybe that’s not the most positive way to begin the new year, thinking about potential disasters.
When I got a little older, my New Year's Eve celebrations often brought tears to my eyes. I'd hear the chorus sing, May old acquaintance be forgot, in days of auld lang syne, and even though I didn't have the slightest idea what those words meant, there was something sad about letting go of a past that I knew, and something a little scary about facing the uncertainties of the future yet to be.
But then, inevitably, old Guy and the Canadians Royal would launch into another tune from ancient times--Happy Days Are Here Again--and I suppose it was meant to make us all feel better about our loss, which, I must admit, it did help me to do. I listened to the bouncy beat of the Democrats one-time official campaign song, and began to imagine all the wild possibilities of a new year, the chance to start over again, to start fresh, to leave behind all the failures and mistakes of the past, all the bad moments, all the sad moments. Happy days are here again, the song promised, and so did a new year. Banging thepots and pans, the cold night air in my face and the stars glimmering through the clear January sky, I'd imagine the great things I'd do this year, free of the baggage of the past. During a good chunk of my life it involved school, and so I'd be dreaming about happier grades and higher honors, great successes in standardized tests and extracurricular competitions, unlimited acceptance letters from the best colleges in the nation. But I'd also be thinking about the whole future in front of me, eternal time to someone young, and I had no doubt that I'd do great things for the country and the world. Inventions, adventures, great creative works, leadership roles that would inspire, who knows, perhaps even President, or a great movie star, or a rock and roll legend. Anything was possible in the new year, in happy days, and suddenly all the sadness of the year's loss was forgotten.
The mix of sadness and promise, that's what comes with a new year, with the birth of anything. Any first-time mother or father can testify to that mixed feeling: a newborn baby comes into their lives, and a phase of their life is over-- forever changed--but a new life of family is born for everyone. A bit of sadness and a whole lot of promise all mixed together with the birth of a baby. No wonder then, that every New Year's Eve is symbolized by an old man and a baby side by side.
How fitting, then, to celebrate this New Year's Day in the church with attention to Mary, the mother of the newborn baby whom the shepherds felt drawn to be near.
Of course the shepherds came--who knew more about the hardships and promises of life than the simple men who fed the lambs and watched over the sheep?
It tells us in the Gospel that his parents gave him the name the angel suggested, Jesus, which means Savior, and for Mary especially, the child she gave birth to was to be both savior and sacrifice, a mixed blessing of sadness and promise. It says that Mary "treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart", and doubtless as she looked upon her child under the shimmering stars and the cold night air, she dreamed about the great things he might do, all the while knowing--fearing--what might happen to him in the process.
The night of his birth was the end of one time and the beginning of another, it was the great divide between the old and the new, and it was a night that was truly the beginning of happy days for everyone.
But the only one who really understood this incredible truth--its pain and its joy--was the little 14 year old young woman who said, simply, "yes" to the most unbelievable invitation the universe has ever known. Mary, to be known ever after as the Mother of God, was there at the beginning of our ransomed time, the new year with all its real promise happened for all of us because of her incredible faith and courage. And so we honor her again, this day, as the baby of our dreams, sleeps in her lovely arms.
And for us, another year together as family, a holy family indeed. Worst case scenarios--stuck in quicksand, face to face with a bear, parachute problems, dealing with a mob of kangaroos—you know what? Some of them will surely come, but we will survive them in this new year, if we face them with the courage of Mary and the sure knowledge that Jesus, her son, has ransomed us from the most dire of circumstances.
For auld lang syne my dear,
For auld lang syne,
May auld aquaintance be forgot,
For days of auld lang syne.
NEW YEAR'S BLESSING
The Lord bless you and keep you!
The Lord let his face shine upon you,
and be gracious to you!
The Lord look upon you kindly
and give you peace!