By the time most of you will be reading this, you will have turned over the page of your calendar into the New Year. I wonder how many New Year’s resolutions will have been made and already broken. Thresholds can be exciting places and for me, the threshold between the old and the new year is one of these. We move into a land not yet visited, a chapter waiting to be written, an opportunity to put right the wrongs of last year, a place of optimism and new starts. As Alfred Lord Tennyson says, “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier”.
Turning the page of the liturgical calendar into January reveals many important staging posts. On January 1st we celebrate the ‘Naming and Circumcision of Jesus’ and a few days later we celebrate the great Feast of the Epiphany. Towards the end of the month on January 25th, we commemorate the Conversion of St. Paul and in the previous seven days, we are called to devote ourselves the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The festival of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus is full of symbolism. Perhaps the most significant of these in the gospels is the name itself, ‘Jesus’, which means ‘Yahweh (God) saves’, Jesus, the name that the Angel Gabriel commanded Mary to give him, Jesus, ‘God saves’, who links us to the covenant made between God and Abraham and also to the hope that is to come. Yes. Names are important. They are the things that shape our identity, that differentiate ourselves from others, that link us to generations past, present and future. In baptisms, marriages and funerals our names are used in place of the anonymous ‘n’ which crops up frequently in liturgy, distilling the general into the personal. To His people who have gone through challenging times, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah these comforting words, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine.’ Through Jesus, our saviour and redeemer, we too can enjoy a personal relationship with God.
We are reminded on the feast of the Epiphany that this news is too good to keep to ourselves. The word ‘Epiphany’ itself speaks of “The manifestation of God; a sudden revelation or insight into the nature, essence or meaning of something.” In Jesus, God was breaking into the world making his saving grace known to all people, irrespective of race, of creed or colour.
For some, this good news is hard to swallow, perhaps none more so than the apostle Paul. Well known for his persecution of Christians, Paul speaks of a revelation by God of his Son, Jesus Christ, a revelation that dramatically changed this most ferocious enemy of the Church to one of its most zealous spokespersons. It didn’t happen immediately. Paul, writing to the Galatians, speaks of a three year period out of the public eye when no doubt he wrestled with his changing viewpoint. Then a further fourteen years passed about which we know little but can speculate that God was shaping him for the task to which he had been called.
In amongst the January list of feasts and festivals and commemorations of important people stand some lesser-known people. On the 2nd of January, for example, we are invited to remember Abbot Munchin, a seventh century monk affectionately known as ‘the wise’. I’m sure I’m not alone in knowing nothing of this man who is remembered for inaugurating a tradition of prayer and study in Celtic monastic life. And who knows of Kentigern who we are called to remember on the 13th January, known affectionately as ‘Mungo’, seventh century Bishop and evangelist working to spread the Gospel even under great persecution? We don’t need to be famous to respond to God who calls us by our name, who, through his grace, longs to reveal his son to us so that we too might go out to declare the Good News of Jesus Christ to all we meet.
We are living through times where the bad news seems to outweigh the good news. This year, let us pray that God will give us the courage to be heralds of good news in a bad news world, light-bearers in the dark places, bringers of hope to the despairing and companions to those in need.
May God bless you and all whom you love in this New Year.