Yes, it is that time of the year again.
How many times have you heard those words or said them in the past few days?
For me the “Happy New Year” of New Year’s Day turns in the happy birthday of the 2nd of January, which is my birthday.
Sometimes it can be difficult to feel happy in the cold, dark days of January. I wrote in this blog two years ago that after our friend Phil died suddenly on New Year’s Eve 2020, my wife and I found it difficult to mouth the words “Happy New Year”. The cheery words seemed out of step with the mood of that moment, with another loss after the many losses of the first season of the pandemic.
Well, here I am at the beginning of 2023, one year older and thinking about how this year might unfold.
We are in are a time of national instability, the Queen is dead, the Royal family is riven by conflict, we have had three prime ministers in the past year and the in-tray of government is overflowing. This has been called a “winter of discontent,” echoing the chaos of 1978–9.
It seems as if everybody is engaged in industrial action: no trains, no post and no medical attention. Add to this the energy crisis, the instability caused by the war in Ukraine, the economic pressures caused by recession, and reasons to be cheerful are very limited.
Yet preachers are called on to preach hope.
How do we preach hope when we are living in what seem like hopeless times? It reminds me of the words of the Israelite exiles in Babylon, who ask,
“How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4)
These exiles are honest because they recognise that you cannot contain a haemorrhage with a Band Aid. What people need in desperate times is not to be urged to whistle in the dark but to be helped to experience solid hope.
The challenge in dark times is learning to focus on the right things in the right way.
We inevitably focus on family, health, work, and money. When all or most of these things are stable, we feel at ease, but when they are unstable, it can feel as the foundations of our lives are being shaken and the lights are going out one after another.
Christian hope helps us to see that fixing our focus and security on things that can flicker on and off like lightbulbs will not guarantee our wellbeing. Preachers need to point us to something more stable.
Turning to the Psalms again, we read:
“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:11–12)
In dark times we need to be helped to see that the source of light is not diminished because at this moment we are experiencing darkness.
My daily reading of Augustine’s timeless wisdom sums this up so well:
“Your eyes become sharers in this light, and you see. Did you close your eyes? You have not diminished the light. Did you open them again. You have not increased the light.” (Augustine Homily 39 on John)
“Trials abound in this world, but the one who created the world is great; trials abound, but he does not fail who places his hope in the one in whom there is no failing.” (Augustine Homily 40 on John)
Happy New Year!