Well, congratulations we made it! When 2017 began, there were a great many people who wondered if the man who was waiting to be sworn in to the most powerful office in the world would take us down a path of mutual self-destruction. While it has been an amazing year, our worst fears have not come to fruition. 2017 may go down in history as the year that a narcissist drove us all to distraction, but the doomsayers’ predictions that, “the end is nigh” have not come to pass. I suspect that pessimists of all sorts have been predicting the end of the world since the world began. So, on this the last day of this very strange year, we greet one another in the same way as our ancestors greeted one another: “Happy New Year!” and even as we bid one another a Happy New Year, we know that the forecast for the coming year looks bleak.
There is little doubt that 2018 will see the continuation of the abuse of our planet. We humans will go on burning the stuff that we know full well is causing climate change that will have catastrophic effects on the environment. Species will continue to become extinct. Peace in the Middle East is more elusive than ever. Most of us aren’t expecting a lull in terrorism anytime soon. The mess in Syria will continue to be a mess from which refugees will continue to flee. The flow of refugees will continue to expose the racist underbelly of far too many cultures.
The madman in North Korea and the narcissist in Washington will continue to taunt and threaten one another, while the world wrings its hands. Nationalism and tribalism isn’t going away in the New Year. Indeed, we all know that the most powerful office on the planet is in the hands of a man whose ignorance knows no bounds. The prognosticators, the talking heads, the prophets of our day are warning of a new and frightening Cold War that will continue to threaten our way of life. The poor are still with us. Despite all our technological advances, despite our proven ability to feed everyone on the planet three times over, men, women, and children continue to starve to death in all sorts of places all over the planet. We also know that basic human rights that we take for granted like clean drinking water are denied to far too many communities in this country, a land that actually contains one quarter of the world’s fresh water. We know that the rich keep getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the middle-class is disappearing, and we know that money can’t buy us happiness. Yet, in the midst of all these obstacles we continue to bid one another a Happy New Year. Even though we know that the folks we are wishing a Happy New Year will continue to face not only these obstacles but the realities that illness and death will no doubt touch their lives in some way or another, precisely because illness and death are part of life.
When viewed through the lens of the realities of our human existence, it seems futile, and maybe even a tad ridiculous to bid someone, anyone a Happy New Year. Most of us have seen in more than a few New Years and we know that years come and go, all too quickly, they come and go, and yes, some years are better than others. But I bet none of us have greeted anyone lately with “Have a measurably good year.” So, what is it that we are longing for when we say to a fellow creature, “Happy New Year”?
Maybe it’s because I’m fighting the effects of a post-Christmas cold, maybe the stuffiness of my sinuses has dulled my ability to see beyond the fog of reality, but I can’t help wondering what we really mean when we say, “Happy New Year.” But if you’ll hang in there with me, I think I can see a glimmer of light emanating from our gospel reading. I’m pretty sure that the characters that the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Luke has created for us can point us beyond the fog of reality toward the hope that every new year contains. Both Simeon and Anna point to the baby Jesus and say, hey look at this beautiful baby, in this one lie the hopes and dreams of all the world, now that I’ve seen this child, I can shuffle off this mortal coil trusting that all shall be well. Surely in the lives of these wise folk we can see the reality that when confronted by all the potential of a new human life, we humans are drawn into a demission of reality that transcends time itself. There aren’t too many among us, who when gazing upon the beauty of a newborn aren’t able to see beyond the ordinary and into the extraordinary. As jaded as some of us may be, newborns have a way of opening us up to the fullness of time, as one generation gazes upon the next generation and can’t help but see in the next generation all the generations that have gone before and all the generations that are yet to come.
There’s an old Sufi myth that when laid alongside of our gospel myth sheds light upon our longing for a, Happy New Year. According to the Sufi myth, a certain Sultan owned everything a man could wish for and still he did not know the purpose of life. The answer to three questions made his life difficult:
1. What should I do?
2. With which people should I do the things God asks me to do?
3. When should I do it?
The Sultan asked the advice of all kinds of wise people, and then he was told that there was a Chishti dervish, who lived far away, and who might give him a satisfactory answer. The Sultan immediately left and after a journey of several weeks he met the dervish. The dervish was cultivating his own land. He was a simple man, but no simpleton, as he was reciting a Persian quatrain over and over again: There is a work beyond knowledge, realize that, go! Do not work to get jewels, be the mine, go! The heart is a temporary abode, leave it and come! The soul is the final abode, realize that, go!
The Sultan was however not interested in Persian poems and put his three questions to the dervish. The dervish did not answer him and continued with his work. The Sultan became angry and said: “Don’t you know who I am. I am the Sultan of Sultans”. But this did not make any impression as well and the dervish continued doing what he was doing.
A heavily wounded man suddenly appeared and he dropped to the ground in front of the dervish. The dervish said to the Sultan: “Help me to carry this man to my place!”
“I’ll help you,” the Sultan said, “but will you answer my questions afterwards?”
“Later!” the dervish said and together they brought the wounded man to the hut of the dervish and took care of him.
“And now I’d like to receive the answers to my questions,” the Sultan said.
“You can return to your palace,” the dervish said, “because you have already received the answers to your questions. As to what to do, you should do what comes to you on your path.
As to with whom you should do it, the answer is with those who are present. And as for the when to do it, you should do it the moment it takes place”.
It has been said that at the end of our lives, we don’t remember days, or weeks, or years, what remember at the end of our lives are moments. New Year’s Day will be much like any other day; a day filled with the realities of life, full of the ordinary stuff that makes up each and every day. Indeed, every day is a new year; a fresh start, a new beginning, filled with the potential of all sorts of moments. On this new day, in this new year, I bid you moments, for as near as I can tell, what we will remember of the coming year, is what we remember of all the years past, moments. Happiness, I suspect is knowing how to greet the moments that come to us. What should we do? With whom should we do it? When should we do it?
As each moment comes to you may you do what needs doing with what comes to you on your path. May you do what needs doing with those who are there with you. May you do what is called for in the moment it takes place. In this we will find the Happy New Year we desire for one another. Being fully present to the moments that come to us, seeing the potential of a fresh start, the hope of a new beginning, the dream of peace, the power of new birth. Happy New Year!