January 2, 2011
First Sunday after Christmas
With the possible exception of April 15, January 2 is probably everyone's most dreaded day of the oh-so-new year. From the fourth Thursday in November through the first day of January, everyone in America parties. We stuff ourselves with turkey and dressing, homemade cookies, candies and pumpkin pie. Once-a-year delicacies appear New Year's Eve--like smoked salmon, caviar and champagne and eggnog. We stay up late, party constantly, spend lots of money, act nicer -- and what do we get for it?
Overweight, exhausted, in debt and with the house a mess, we wake up the day after and find ... it's January 2. After all those football games and all those Frito-Lays, we realize it's now time to go on a diet, get on a budget, go back to work or school and pack up all those ornaments. (And why is it that all the Christmas decorations that looked so lovely and exciting in the middle of December suddenly look so bad or boring on January 2?)
January 2 is important because as the beginning of where we left off. As an example what would've happened to the sheep and the livelihood of the shepherds had they not returned but had gone on as the vanguard of some new movement? What would've happened to those Wise Men of the East had they not “returned to their country by another way”? What would have happened to Elijah and to Israel had Elijah chosen to remain at the mouth of the cave in mystic splendor, nursing his wounds and wondering at the strange events that have befallen him?
There is a time to lay down all of our cares and responsibilities and to run with excited spirits to Bethlehem and the manger, to go see this thing that has come to pass; there is a time to follow the Eastern Star and take the road less taken; there's a time to flee for refuge from the troubles of the world and seek the safety of the mountaintop. There is also a time to return. To return to the hillside, the laboratory, the place where one labors and to begin we left off.
Whose idea was it to put the big holiday season so early in the winter, anyway? January, February, March -- all the really cold and dreary months must be faced head-on, with nothing except the appropriately sacrificial season of Lent to mark their passage. If we are going to make it through January 2, we need to get a new perspective on this day. The Church in its rhythm knows this, and that is why the seasons are planned such as they are. It is a lesson we might well learn, and there is no better day than New Year's Day on which to learn it.
Christmastime somehow promises so much and delivers so little. Christ is born, yet wars continue, marriages continue to fail, the job is no better on 26 December then it was on the 24th. Joy, cheer, peace and goodwill; these are guaranteed minimums for the season, and when we are denied them, life has a way of making us think things are worse than before. Will the world really be any different simply because we employed all the symbols to suggest that it is? Is the newness that we seek really going to make it any better than before? We should try not to give in to pessimism; optimism is the way of Christ; optimism is faith; but none of this is magic. We must be faithful to Christ so that even the worst of times we know that some good will come of it.
The month of January takes its name from the Roman god Janus, a two-faced being, with each visage facing the opposite direction. Janus/January is a hinge time; a vantage point from which we can still see back into the past year and yet can also face forward and look expectantly at the year that lies ahead.
January 2 isn't just a day to sigh over "how far" we've got to go to lose that weight or pay those bills or see the spring flowers again. January 2 is also a vantage point from which we can plot the course of the New Year. Janus does look backward to the past, but he also looks forward to the future. January 2 must become the start of the hope month, not just the end of the party.
Part of the problem with this year's January 2 is that it still is carrying baggage saved from last year's January 2. Without any definite idea about "where to," we tend to repeat each year in much the same way. With no sense of ownership about the future, about this coming year because we have been spendthrift and irresponsible. One of the greatest indicators of this attitude is our soaring national debt; an amount now so vast that its proportions are more mythic than real.
Traditionally, we think of January 2 as the day we get back into the grind and hit the grindstone after the long holiday season. But for a moment, use the backward-looking face of Janus and see if you ever really got out of the grind. Were you faxing memos to clients or coworkers while heading "over the river and through the woods?" How about thinking through a couple of questions such as these?
What color did your daughter wear at Christmas dinner?
Which was your mother's favorite Christmas decoration on the tree this year?
Did your dad stay awake through midnight on New Year's Eve?
Who ate the last piece of fudge? What was your favorite granddaughter's or nieces or toy this year?
If we don't know the answer to any of those questions, maybe we need to take another look at our family. Our children must not become another item in a mortgaged future. The pressures confronting families this January 2 are enormous. We cannot shield our loved ones from the threats that bombard them, but we can face those threats together.
Some use January 2 to look back on the past year and compose an annual list of disappointments and failures: Didn't get the big promotion. Didn't win the lottery. Didn't learn to control the temper. Didn't make five new friends.
This "litany for a loser" undermines our spiritual life in two ways. First, it tempts us to blame God for all our failures. Second, it makes us increasingly incredulous that God would ever really take any interest in us or our future.
The world does not change and the duties that we have avoided or put off await us with grim determination on Monday morning. The magic of this season is too great to play with so trivial a set of things as that. What has transformed and what it's capable of being transformed so that where we left off is not the same place as where we now begin. It is ourselves that has changed, for we have come from an encounter with the world of the possible in the midst of the impossible.
We, like Moses in the shepherds and Jacob have seen God face to face and have prevailed, that is to say, that we have survived to tell the tale, moving about not knowing their faces shine with the encounter, bearing the mark of our encounter forever, and marveling in the darkest nights of our soul at the wondrous star filled night. Why? Because as I said during Christmas, when we have seen Jesus, we have seen God.
So he we are, on January 2, called to begin where we left off and yet to make a new beginning. It is the same old choice, but a brand-new chance for us and for the world. Christmas and creation apart the same process of God. They have everything to do with one another. They each speak of love the purpose and renewed hopes. Is it not calls for joy there are gospel, the good news from which we seek, is a gospel of second chances, new opportunities to claim the love of God the father; new opportunities to share and express that love in the world; new opportunities to discover who we are and what we become in Christ?
It seems that the routine beckons, the familiar haunts require our attention and our presence, and before too long the memory of this holy time will disappear and be packed away with the paraphernalia of the season. Yet by God's grace we will be open to his most remarkable grace and surprise in the world.
The world moment change until and unless we change. The spirit of Christmas cannot be born from a cold January air and list we are born of the and even reborn again by it. We must return from whence we came, but we do not need to return as the same tired creatures, careworn and spirit lost, for we have seen wonderful things that have come to pass; strange and mighty sites that will never let us look at the skies in quite the same manner as before. Every baby that comes into this world, every man and woman born of a woman is no longer of the same old flesh but I promise any token of Christ. To deny them as they may come to you is to once again denying Christ room as it was denied to him in that first Christmas long ago. To love and cherish the men and women need each day is to receive a new Christ and to each of our lives this world.
If past January 2s have seemed spiritually debilitating, we need to look with a spirit of hope at the "where to" of this year's January 2. In Ephesians there is a positive image, "We who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory".
It is January 2. The profligate party is over. But the coming year promises more than just dieting and dues-paying. Let us use this January 2 to begin creating a future built on hope. It is the first day of living a faith that looks backward to the evidences of God's great gift to us in Jesus Christ and forward to the day when God's plan "to gather up all things in him" will become a reality.
We have been given another New Year. Let us use it wisely, to the glory of God. Christ's presence has hallowed all that we are in every place that we are, and by his grace the world and we can never be quite the same again. Therefore this January 2, we begin again, that leaving the manger we may embrace the world for his sake and for ours.
Have a Happy and Blessed New Year.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.