Strong lungs gave loud cries that opened my sky and started tears I couldn’t control; this joy’s never-before-ness soaked my cheeks. I wanted to see the new person my husband was holding but had to wait for him to bring her over since a Caesarean had left me flat on my back.
Why are beginnings often so little? A baby. A seed. A second.
My daughter. An oak tree. A new year.
I used to fill the ends of Decembers with resolutions — drink less coffee, get more sleep, eat fewer sweets, drink more water, walk each day, be more patient and grateful, and offer kindness to all, that kind of thing, which meant that my “new” years always started in the same old discouraging way as I strained to keep my resolutions and failed, every time.
It wore me out.
So I began embracing that squirming baby in a rural manger in a stable crowded with hay’s fragrance and dung’s tang because this vulnerable, wordless infant, in Kathleen Norris’s words, “born not to wealth and power but to an impoverished peasant woman” is the Word, loving Creator of the world, Savior, and Friend; I started remembering he’s here with me, now, and began reminding my heart that his presence always favors, as Gerardine Luongo Ranft says, “lowliness” and “mercy” and “compassion.”
A new year, then, is not about my striving but simply about being aware that my Christian faith is a wriggling-baby, wet-cheeked, straw-bed, pungent-animal, ripped-open, messy incarnational path, not a dry, intellectual theology nor even a checklist of good deeds and improved behaviors. It’s truly a brand-new beginning — to care for, to love, and to cherish the way we accept armfuls of precious baby for the first time.
Sometimes, however, we go off into thinking a new year’s “beginning” is all about career goals and what we hope to accomplish; at least that is what I once thought. Actually the roots of the word beginning point us in a happier, more meaningful direction, for its core is “to open up completely,” from be- “thoroughly” and the Germanic *ginnan “to open up.” To begin is simply to open up. It’s an attitude filled with hope and joy. Too, beginning is related to gínan, Old English for “to gape, yawn,” so “to begin” also suggests “to wake up.” To “wake up” to our blessings, perhaps.
That said, we all know a new year can bring fear as we consider the worries we carry into it, such as ill health, joblessness, family problems, financial concerns, bullying, a difficult work situation, loneliness, or a struggle with depression. So we cling to Christ’s words, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Matthew 14:27 When he said this to his disciples, they thought he was a “ghost” walking on the water to them. They were terrified in the 3 a.m. darkness, exhausted by rowing, and still buffeted by strong winds; but Christ’s presence calmed them. They knew he would bring them through any storm. His powerful words inspired an encouraging hymn by nineteenth-century English religious leader John Henry Newman, which you can read here.
God’s words are always a newness because Scripture calls us to fresh perspectives, nudges us awake, and comforts us. We take it with us into the new year, to soften the soul and open us up to be filled with the hope and joy of the incarnation.
Here are some wise “beginnings” for this new-year moment:
“[I]f anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5:17
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.” Isaiah 60:1
“‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’” Ephesians 5:14
While they were still talking about [the risen Christ’s sudden appearance on the Emmaus road and not knowing him at first], Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” Luke 24:36-41
Or, as sung by the thirteenth-century Flemish poet Hadewijch*, well-acquainted with frozen, snowy Antwerp winters and the constant new beginning that is Love’s warm-heartedness:
As another new year begins for us, we’re already looking forward to spring’s green mountains and fields and blooming flowers. We’re already looking forward to that beautiful time, even though the landscape is still winter-brown. That’s exactly how it is for anyone who gives their all for Love’s good-looking promises, before measuring Love’s immeasurableness. Their joy isn’t ripe yet, but it will be. . . . So wait on Love. And God be with you.
*Hadewijch’s quotations are from Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s A Little Daily Wisdom (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008), 23, 39.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)
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