New Year’s Eve for me has always been one of those wonderful moments in time, when I’m reminded of our human impulse, indeed my own impulse, for renewal, new beginnings, fresh starts.
And certainly, the Christmas and Easter themes of birth, and new life, and resurrection, feed into this impulse of hope for new beginnings.
St. Benedict of the 5th century wrote: “always we begin again.”
“New and fresh every morning is God’s grace and mercy” sings the author of Lamentations 3:22-23.
Through the prophet Isaiah, 54:10, God proclaims: “For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed.”
Looking forward, with anticipation and confidence, to fresh and new manifestations of God’s good grace and mercy, is the stuff that gives us hope and joy.
And even though there may’ve been some very difficult things happen to us in the past year, we know that only with God’s help and grace – which God is so willing to give – are we able to accept what has happened, and still look forward to the brighter future God promises.
We have this dramatic picture of “new beginnings” and “fresh starts” with the vision in Revelation 21 of a “new heaven and a new earth”, a “new holy city of Jerusalem” coming down from heaven,
making all things new,
where God will dwell among the people,
wiping away every tear,
where there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain,
where only joy, and peace, and goodness will prevail.
We hope for these things. We yearn for joy and peace and goodness, for ourselves, and for the world. We bring our hopes and dreams to this threshold of a new year.
So while these scripture passages speak of confidence in God’s grace and goodness, the Gospel reading from Matthew reminds us where we need to look for God’s grace and goodness.
The Gospel reading reminds us that the grace and goodness for which we long is not only for ourselves, but is something we experience beyond our self-interests.
The Gospel reading calls us to look beyond our self-interest, to others, and their needs, and there to find true joy, goodness and grace.
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” says Jesus.
In a kind of counter-intuitive, ironic way, the deep, satisfying renewal we all yearn for, is not ultimately found in the empty pursuit of self-gratification and accumulation, but rather, in our self-emptying, our self-giving, especially among the least, the lost and lonely.
Our sensitivity, attentiveness and responses to others are what matters.
In the prophetic words of Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
When we share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our house, and tend to the sick and the oppressed, then, as the prophet Isaiah, 58:8 points out, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…”
Local author Ann Voskamp shares a time when she was a young mother of a toddler-aged daughter. And Ann’s aunt, who was then in her fifties, came to visit Ann and her family on their farm in southwestern Ontario.
Ann’s aunt, from a young adult age, pursued a high-flying, globe-trotting lifestyle, believing in that was to be found a fulfilling, renewing and exciting life.
The aunt became an airline steward.
She flew all over the world, spending her whole life visiting interesting places, dining in exotic locales, wandering the streets of the foreign and glamorous.
Then, in her mid-fifties, she came to visit Ann and her family on the farm in Ontario.
She sat in their living room of the farmhouse, rolling a red plastic ball across the floor to Ann’s little girl.
The toddler squealed with ecstasy as the ball rolled toward her.
Everyone laughed as the little one stretched out her two little arms, clutching the giant red ball in two chubby hands, and held it high over her head, her face glowing with glee.
Again and again, the aunt would roll the ball to the little girl, who would then squeal with laughter; over and over again.
Everyone was just bent over laughing, their sides hurting happy from the laughing, thinking this was just the funniest thing.
Weeks later, the aunt sent a letter to Ann, from some far-flung hotel, stamped in some post office on the other side of the ocean. In it she wrote: “Ann, I will never forget your daughter’s wild joy in that ball – a happiness like I have never seen in all my travels through all these years. And in the simplest of experiences.”
Among the simple, ordinary, everyday times, places and people, thinking about others, feeling for others, enjoying the company of others, spending time with others, being attentive to, and responding generously and graciously especially to the least, the lost and lonely – this leads to unimaginable renewal, and joy like no other.
As we stand on the threshold of a new year, peering into the unknown yet brighter future God promises, may we also peer beyond the narrow circle of our lives, to really see others, and respond with grace and compassion.
And sure enough, we will begin to notice the dawn from on high, the New Jerusalem, the steadfast love of God, breaking into our world, and into our hearts.