The following reflection by Malcolm Guite is taken from PilgrimYear: Christmastide, an ebook on the spirituality of the Christian calendar year. For more information, see below.
If we are making our way through a sacred pilgrim year, why should we observe New Year’s Day as a feast day?
Isn’t it just the arbitrary accident of a pagan calendar, and therefore has nothing to do with the mysteries of the Church, of our Saviour and our salvation?
Well, I think there are good reasons for keeping and making it a day to reflect on what passes and what is renewed on our strangely-graced journey through time.
Our Lord Himself was born into a pagan world and came not to destroy or ignore its customs, but to cleanse and redeem them. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day give us a moment to look back and to look forward. The world may tempt us to look backwards with nostalgia and to look forwards with dread. Our consciences may prompt us to look backwards with guilt and forwards with quixotic longing; but the gospel sings a different tune!
The gospel looks back with us at our guilt, and simply cancels it out—crosses out the word guilt and writes instead the word faith—a faith that makes us righteous. As theologian Karl Barth so memorably said, “It is always the case that when the Christian looks back, he is looking at the forgiveness of sins.”
And the gospel looks forward with us, at our dread or fear of an unknown future, and crosses out the word fear and writes instead the word hope—hope in the resurrection; hope because now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed; hope because our Saviour is both the Alpha of our beginning and the Omega of our end. That beautiful superscription of faith and hope to cleanse and deliver our past and future leaves the greatest of these three, love, to be written in golden letters over the present moment. For the present moment is the only moment when love can be made real and acted upon.
Paradoxically, a Christian contemplation of the passing of the old year and the arrival of the new is not about getting lost in the past or the future, but is about being gloriously restored to the present, awakened to its splendour and beauty.
In my church in England we have a centuries-old custom of “ringing in the new year.” Indeed, the oldest of the bells we ring was cast in the fifteenth century! Just before we ring the bells we recite some words from the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, from his poem “In Memoriam.” This poem tells the story of how Tennyson learned to let go of his grief and embrace Christ as his Saviour. The great turning point in “In Memoriam” comes with the ringing of bells for the new year and the famous and beautiful lines beginning “Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,” and concludes:
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
I love to hear our bells, and so I have made my own small contribution to the poetry and meaning of bell ringing in the following sonnet, which is taken from my collection Sounding the Seasons.
Perhaps these words will also help you to awaken and stir to the God who calls you here and now to love Him and love your neighbour in the present moment!
NEW YEAR’S DAY: CHURCH BELLS Malcolm Guite*
Not the bleak speak of mobile messages,
The soft chime of synthesized reminders,
Not texts, not pagers, data packages,
Not satnav or locators ever find us
As surely, soundly, deeply as these bells
That sound and find and call us all at once
‘Ears of my ears’ can hear, my body feels
This call to prayer that is itself a dance.
So ring them out in joy and jubilation,
Sound them in sorrow tolling for the lost,
O let them wake the church and rouse the nation.
A sleeping lion stirred to life at last
Begin again they sing, again begin,
A ring and rhythm answered from within.
*sonnet is reprinted from SOUNDING THE SEASONS: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year by Malcolm Guite.
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The above guest chapter is reprinted from Steve Bell’s ebook PilgrimYear: Christmastide available HERE…