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It’s 12:01am New Year’s Day. The ball has dropped. The confetti is flying. Hugging and kissing and cheering abound. I’m waiting for Elton John to start playing on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve party and hoping that my nine-month-old daughter stays asleep long enough for me catch up on the latest pop music stars. (So that’s what Iggy Azalea looks like!) People are sharing their resolutions on national television—to be happy, to live every day as it if were the last, to run a mile in under four minutes, and to spend every day with the love of their life—the last of which was followed by a marriage proposal. Fireworks light up the skies in major cities throughout the United States, and thanks to our globalized world, we’re able to watch similar scenes from Sydney, Moscow, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.
Together the world marks time, the ending of one year and the beginning of the next. Shedding the sorrow and disappointments of the past twelve months and inviting joy and satisfaction to fill the next twelve. Warm wishes for wellbeing are shared all around the globe. These celebrations mix ancient practices with the most modern (or postmodern) and clothe religious sentiments in secularity.
Marking time and space through ritual is perhaps as old as humankind. Historians trace New Year’s rituals back approximately four thousand years to the ancient Babylonians who annually celebrated the victory of their sky god and acknowledged the divine mandate granted to their king. Of course, this kind of ritualization is central to the Judeo-Christian faith as well. The Hebrew people set up altars, planted trees, named places after God, told and re-told stories of God’s intervention in their lives. After Jacob fled from Esau and received God’s promise to Abraham as his own, he set up a pillar, anointed it with oil, and named the place Bethel, House of God. He also made a vow to follow and worship God in response to God’s promise. Jews still celebrate Passover today in remembrance of God’s deliverance of their people out of slavery in Egypt, and Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Christ’s death, through which they are reconciled to God and one another.
These rituals are a response to divine intervention. They recall God’s deliverance, remind us of God’s promises, renew our faith in the living and liberating God, and unite us to God by the Spirit. The emphasis here is divine action—quite distinct from today’s New Year’s celebrations, where God lingers in the background (at best) and our own quests for self-improvement take center stage. We are the masters of our own fate in late modernity, or so we believe, setting trajectories for our desired futures and rewriting the narrative of our lives.
I suppose that is why I gave up on making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago: there was no promise and no actor bigger than me. And yes, for that reason and more, I rarely kept said resolutions. So this year, instead of just discarding the resolution piece of today’s celebration, I’m remembering God’s promises to me, to all humanity, to all creation; promises for joy, freedom, justice, peace, wholeness, and reconciliation; promises fulfilled in Christ; promises that I glimpse in the life and love and laughter of friends and family; promises that seem utterly absent and ineffectual in light of so much of this past year’s news; yet promises that nevertheless persist in the context of their opposite.