I stood in church and watched two baptisms on the first day of 2012. Just a few hours before, a couple of friends and I had raised glasses and toasted the new year. Then, there in the sanctuary, two heads were lowered and splashed in that old reenactment of Christ’s new life.
I have trouble getting excited about New Year’s Eves. I can get excited about fireworks, about good cheeses, about toasts… about all that stuff we’ve clustered around the date. Parties are great. But unless I’m going to sit around marveling at the mathematical genius of the medieval monks who worked out our calendar–and I’m not usually inclined to–it’s just hard to come up with anything to latch the date onto. It’s hard to find an out-there-in-the-world reason to celebrate. Nothing’s changed in nature; it’s still midwinter. If pains happen to stop or pleasures happen to start at the new year, it’s likely coincidental. It feels arbitrary. It’s all in our heads.
Now don’t get me wrong: opportunities for self-examination, recollection, and informed ambition are great. They’re great enough that they might merit a holiday. Sure. Great. Let’s do have a day during which we culturally insist on renewal. Let’s do make our absolutions and our resolutions. Let’s do act as if our slates are wiped clean. Great.
But standing there by the baptismal, all the bubbly resolutions and insistent optimism of New Year’s Eve simply seemed like fizz. Here was the real thing: the startling, simple reminder of the source and cost of real renewal. Here was what a cleaned slate really looks like.
It turns out that a cleaned slate isn’t pretty; it’s sublime. It isn’t fizzy; it’s slap!-the-world-is-real! hard. It’s a wet, cold journey down to Christ’s death before it comes back up through resurrection to new life.
God has been pretty clear about this: biblical renewal is tied to bereavement.
Christ says “behold, I make all things new,” but only after saying, “the former things have passed away.” (see Rev. 21:1-8) Remember: it isn’t an easy passing. John saw them passing in sickness, strife, and fire.
Likewise, Jeremiah says, “his mercies… are new every morning,” but he says it in the middle of his book of mourning, Lamentations, alongside “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust–there may yet be hope.” (see Lam. 3:1-39)
I think this makes sense. Newness wouldn’t be newness without some kind of death. It could be progress or development, but it wouldn’t be new. “New” implies replacement, and replacement just can’t happen unless the “place” is emptied. We can’t become new people by insisting on it; the old has to pass away first.
We’re bad at this. So bad, in fact, that new year’s resolutions are mentioned satirically at least as often as they are mentioned seriously. We don’t expect them to be kept. We have fun making them, and then we fail. Except, you know, for those perfect, goody-two-shoes, god-like few.
But that’s just the point. The few I know who do keep their resolutions really are God-like; they understand biblical renewal. Not only do they work hard for their goal, but they also make way for it first. Like Christ, they succeed because they sacrifice.
But there’s a second side to biblical renewal, too. God has been clear: renewal is tied to bereavement, but also (and maybe more importantly) biblical renewal finds its source and foundation in God’s unchanging grace.
Look again at the passages from Revelation and Lamentations. Christ says, “I make all things new,” just before he says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” Jeremiah says, “his mercies… are new every morning,” just before he says, “great is your faithfulness.” Human renewal goes hand in hand with God’s unchanging grace.
An absurd interpretation of the “mercies are new” passage from Lamentations might portray God as an adamant morning person: getting grouchy at night, but rosily merciful while he eats a bowl of unsugared oatmeal at sunrise. It’s so absurd that the right interpretation stands out that much more clearly: his mercies aren’t new to him, they’re new to us. Each time we receive them, they’re new to us. Each day we need them to be new to us. We’re weak like that.
We’re weak, and our weakness frequently keeps us from renewal. It’s ridiculous, but I often try to gain something new by means of the strength that I get from the old thing I’m replacing. I try to become new by means of the old. I try to rely on my weakness. But there’s a really big problem with that: it doesn’t work. I need something sure and strong that can move the new thing into my life once the old thing has passed away.
Sometimes the force of my willpower is good enough for that movment (though it certainly wouldn’t be good enough for the renewal of, for example, the force of my willpower), but sometimes I need to rely on a system of rewards and punishments I construct, or a community committed to my change. Sometimes, when the renewal I need is deeper and more mysterious, even a community isn’t enough. I need something eternal, helpful, and true.
“Great is your faithfulness.”
We had a baptism party after church that day. A real celebration, with food and laughter. And do you know what? I didn’t have any trouble getting excited about it. Here was real, sublime renewal. Here were two people placing themselves under Christ, who died and who rose again. It was, as it has been for two millennia, a foretaste and an instance of the renewal that God will effect for all of his creation someday very soon.
If we will be new, then we must go down into death. If we will be new, then God must raise us up. That’s what baptism is all about, and if our new year’s resolutions are going to be worth anything, they’ll have to follow that pattern too. If they do follow it–if we as individuals and as a society can learn both to face bereavement and to turn ourselves toward eternal things–then, at last, we’ll have a new year that’s truly worth celebrating.