A Blessed New Year

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on John 1:1-18 and Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon.

Yesterday I had to go to the store for something; and as I was completing the transaction and getting ready to leave, the checkout clerk turned to me and said, “You have a blessed New Year, hon.”

When I heard that, my first thought – and I’m a little embarrassed at how ungenerous a first thought it was – but my first thought was “Well isn’t that typical. It’s only two days after Christmas, it’s only the third out of twelve whole days of Christmas, and already it’s all about New Year’s, already we’ve left Christmas behind and we’re racing on to the next holiday.”

And it was true: I’d noticed before checking out that the store displays had all been changed: all the greens and tinsel and bows had been taken down, and everything was party hats and champagne glasses and Baby New Year decorations. There was barely a trace of Christmas left in the shopping consciousness, but everything was focusing ahead to the next marketing opportunity. That’s what I heard first in the checkout clerk’s words.

But then I remembered that she said “Have a blessed New Year.” Not a “happy” New Year. Not a “prosperous” or “successful” or “personal best” New Year. She’d said “Have a blessed New Year.”

So my second thought, after my ungenerous first one, was about blessing for the new year. And that made me think that maybe Christmas and New Year’s are not so disconnected, not so much rushing from one holiday to the next, as I had thought.

After all, it is hardly coincidence that Christmas and New Year’s fall so close together. Both holidays are based on the old Roman calendar, and the way the calendar reflected astronomy.

According the the Julian Calendar – introduced by Julius Caesar in the year 46 BCE – the first day of the year was January 1, and the winter solstice was December 25. It was important that the Julian calendar linked those two dates. Before then, the Roman calendar was based on the cycles of the moon, rather than the cycles of the sun. And that meant that the first day of the year and the day of the winter solstice kept moving around relative to each other. New Year’s day might come first, and the winter solstice after it. Solstice might come first and the new year later. They could be on the same day. They could be several weeks apart. But the “new” calendar in 46 BCE ended that confusion, and set the longest night of the year and the beginning of the New Year just one week apart.

And there was important symbolism around that. There was religious significance around that. The winter solstice was when the night was the longest, when it felt like the powers of winter and darkness and death had won – but after that the days started getting longer again, light was returning and life was on the rebound, hope for springtime and the future could begin. And it was in that atmosphere of hope that the New Year began, the calendar turned over to January 1 and the cycle of days and week and months was refreshed. Many ancient cultures regarded the beginning of the year as a time of renewal and rebirth and hope; and the Roman calendar signaled this in a special way by linking the winter solstice and New Year’s Day on December 25 and January 1.

And it was according to that same calendar that Christians in Rome first started celebrating Christmas on December 25. In the year 274 the Emperor Aurelius decreed that all Romans would observe the Winter Solstice, December 25, as the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The Christians in Rome – who were living under some risk of persecution at that time – accepted the new holiday; but they chose to regard it as the birth of the Sun of Righteousness, that is, the birth of Jesus. (By the way, we still use “Sun of Righteousness” as a title for Jesus; you can find it in the third stanza of the Christmas carol “Hark! the herald angels sing.” You can look it up in the hymnal right now if you want to!) The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun didn’t last on the calendar much longer than Aurelius; but celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 is something we Christians are still doing to this very day.

And the birth of Jesus, the rising of the Sun of Righteousness into the world, is something we believe marks a time of renewal and rebirth and new hope for us all. St Paul says that before Christ was born of a woman, “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.” We could not be trusted with our own decisions and choices and lives, Paul says, but we needed an external “disciplinarian.” But now that Jesus has been born, now that Jesus has lived a human life in the power of divine love, now that Jesus has died and been raised and has shown us all what the true purpose of human life is – now, Paul says, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” so that we can be free children of God just as Jesus is.

Or, as St John puts it, “the true light, which enlightens everyone” has come into the world in Jesus; and the rising of that light, the shining of that light which the darkness cannot overcome, brings to all of us “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” The birth of Jesus, we Christians believe, is not just the coming of one new life into the world, but the renewing of all life for the whole world. It is the beginning of a new Age, a new Epoch, a new Eon, for all Creation.

Now all of that sounds very huge, and very metaphysical, and very cosmological. Fortunately for us, our calendar gives us some symbolism to help bring it down to earth and connect it with our daily life. Because we still use those two dates, set by the Julian Calendar so long ago, to mark this time of year: Christmas on December 25, and New Year’s on January 1. And now we can see that they belong together: they aren’t just random or accidental or disconnected, they aren’t just rushing from one holiday to the next: but the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the celebration of the beginning of the year are both ways of connecting us with the gift of new life, with God’s gift of new life, with the Spirit of God that can enter into our lives and lift us up and give us strength and make all things new. It is very much a Christmas gift to say to someone “Have a blessed New Year.”

So I’m going to borrow that page from the checkout clerk at the store yesterday. On this December 28, on this First Sunday after Christmas, I invite you to think about the blessing that the birth of Jesus brings to your life, and the blessing you hope for the year to come. Instead of thinking about the New Year’s resolutions you might make, think about the new blessings God might make in you, and the blessings God might make through you for others. And as a Christmas gift, may you all have a blessed New Year. Amen.