Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve

For all its exuberant festivity, for me New Year’s Eve lends itself to both nostalgic and serious reflections both about the state of the world and about my own life, about where I - and the world - have been so far and where we may be going in whatever time may yet be allotted me. On New Year's Eve, it's only natural to look back - not just at the year about to end, but at the many years that have already passed - and ponder personal experiences both good and bad (as well as mixed and in-between). Remembering NewYear's Eves past and the people they were spent with, I am flooded with memories of family and friends now dead, others still living but far away and out-of-touch, precious relationships once treasured that are now only memories or survive but only vestigially (perhaps as Facebook "Friends"). And, if I really get reflective, there are all those opportunities taken or missed to recall, all those forks-in-the-road, where having taken one path I still can't help but wonder where the other might have led.
That's the personal side of New Year's. It's built into the structure of a lifteime from birth to death, which the annual cycle of a "year" from "new" to "old" imitates. In the annual cycle of a "year," however, the annual ringing out of the "old," brings with it the ringing in of the "new," with its new range of - admittedly limited, but nonetheless still very real - new possibilities and opportunities. In other words, reason for hope! Hope is what keeps us going, and our world would be a tragically impoverished place without it.
Hope is important not just in one's individual personal journey of life, but is equally essential when considering the state of the world. Admittedly, the present state of things in the world at large leaves little to be optimistic about. Of course, things could be worse - and have been. There have been far gloomier and more threatening years for the human race than the one just ending. It is perhaps the peculiar conceit of every generation to think its problems and challenges are among the worst.
And yet you hear people complaining about this present day and age because things were so much better in former times. I wonder what would happen if they could be taken back to the days of their ancestors – would we not still hear them complaining? You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430)
That said, we who live in the present age don't have to respond to the challenges of earlier ages(although we have to live with their consequences), but we do have to face up to the present! In that regard, 2012 seems anything but promising. In the United Kingdom, the British have all sorts of economic and social problems, but at least they can look forward to two big national parties this new year - Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee in June and (more ambivalently perhaps) hosting the London Olympics a month later. What do we in America have to look forward to? A year-long Presidential Election!
Already the pathetic process by which the leader of the Free World is anointed has enthralled the media, but at what price in producing an even more dispirited nation? Now at last the peculiar, media-driven institution called the Iowa Caucuses will finally happen on the third day of the year (the earliest ever!). Competing in the Caucuses to challenge the incumbent President in next year's election are quite a crew of candidates: a consistent libertarian (whose fidelity to his principles seems somewhat charming, but whose ideas seem whacky and dangerous even by the standard of libertarianism, which is itself is at best pretty whacky and dangerous), three "social conservatives" (whose efforts to uphold "traditional values" sadly seem at times more about mean-spiritedness than about tradition), an intellectually-oriented, interesting thinker (trying to shoe-horn his ideas into the narrrow confines of his party's new-found prejudices, even while struggling under the weight of his own personal baggage), and finally a "frontrunner" (who seems to be scrambling to oppose what he once advocated). And so it goes, as we welcome a new year in America!
Elections do have consequences, and politics is important. More to the point, there are serious, pressing problems our country and the world need to resolve. Yet, instead of offering a way forward (what one expects an opposition party to do in an election), this process is - in the words of the magazine, The Economist - "saddling its candidate with a set of ideas that are cranky, extreme and backward-looking." (That's from a publication that really would like to have a Republican candidate to support!).
What The Economist writes may not be totally true of all their ideas, of course - some of which may actually make some sense, and some of which may really be traditional and deserve to be supported (or at least considered). Anyway, American voters have a way of sorting it all out. So hope may yet prevail after all.
But on New Year's Eve, it's appropriate to put politics back in its place. For the hope that matters most and that makes all other human hopes make sense is ultimately grounded in God's great Christmas gift to us of himself in the Word-made-flesh - who cares enough about our problematic world to become a part of it and can be counted on to help us get through it.
So I close yet one more mixed up, complicated year with the words of this morning's Postcommunion Prayer: May your people, O Lord, whom you guide and sustain in many ways, experience, both now and in the future, the remedies which you bestow, that, with the needed solace of things that pass away, they may strive with ever deepened trust for things eternal. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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