New Year Carol:
‘The name-day now of Christ we keep,
Who for our sins did often weep;
His hands and feet were wounded deep,
And his blesséd side with a spear;
His head they crowned with thorn,
And at him they did laugh and scorn,
Who for our good was born:
God send us a happy New Year!‘
From the ‘Greensleeves’ Waits’ carol in New Christmas Carols, 1642.
This carol shows us that until at least the seventeenth century in Britain, today was celebrated as the ‘name day’ of Christ. The reason is contained in the fact that, possibly until about this time, New Year’s Day was April 1st, so this carol, sung in alehouses, was perhaps designed to get the English population used to the coincidence of the two events, following the change in the calendar. Most holidays were eight days in all, so it’s possible that most people returned to work after the eighth day of Christmas as well, so it served as a reminder of the true significance of the day in the Christian year. In keeping with this, the third verse is a reminder of the more sober duties of the New Year festivities, and may well have been viewed as useful ‘propoganda’ by the increasingly powerful Presbyterians in Parliament and elsewhere who were, at the very least, lukewarm in their attitude to what they perceived to be excessive merriment at this season:
‘And now with New Year’s gift each friend
Unto each other they do send:
God grant we may all our lives amend,
And that the truth may appear.
Now, like the snake, your skin
Cast off, of evil thoughts and sin,
And so the year begin:
God send us a happy New Year!‘
The following passage from Luke’s gospel (NIV) reveals the original importance of this day among the twelve in the Christmas Festival:
‘On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.’
‘When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons”.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For mine eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
‘The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
‘There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old: she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
‘When Joseph and Mary had done everything that was required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.’
Thus concludes the nativity stories of the two gospels. These texts are powerful. In one sense, Simeon and Anna are the first ‘Christians’, testifying not only to little ‘Yeshua‘, or ‘Joshua’, not just as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but also to his mission as the saviour of the ‘gentile’ world. As a Greek doctor, Luke must have fully understood the significance of what he was recording to its context. Jesus was not just a child challenging the dictatorship of the Judean tyrant, Herod and his family, but also the might of the Roman Empire, which by then was controlling most of the Greek-speaking world. Being born just before Herod’s death into a territory which was bathed in the blood of innocent children and the citizens the tyrant also had murdered, even on his death-bed, Jesus was also born into a very precarious political atmosphere. It took an old man with vision and an old woman of great dedication, to utter the truly revolutionary words which would eventually bring down both the evil dynasty and imperial rule, through the Christ’s sacrifice. Even his mother is not spared the pain contained in the prophecy, and, far from keeping the identity of the baby a secret, Anna told the good news about his birth to all who were waiting for the Messiah to set Jerusalem free from tyranny, to her fellow ‘revolutionaries’. This was a risky strategy indeed, as there must have been many spies posted, not just the unwitting wise men, by Herod, to bring him news of the child’s whereabouts, and the child’s significance and threat to his power was being confirmed under his very nose, in the very heart of Jerusalem, not from their temporary refuge in Gaza. Herod’s death shortly afterwards, before the Passover Feast, did not relieve the pressure on his people from the continuing dynasty, and the child was taken to the relative safety of Mary’s home town, when they would perhaps have preferred to remain in Bethlehem, with Joseph’s family. Jesus’ birth had taken place in a hard winter, and this was no ‘Arab Spring’. This was occupied Jerusalem, controlled by a tyrannical dynasty who knew that if they did not control their people by means of terror, the Romans would.
So, the real message of the Incarnation is that it broke the wall between time and eternity, temple and city, sacred and secular. It allows no division of the Gospel into personal and social, permits no surrender to evil, lets no injustice escape judgement. The God who assumed flesh sought the redemption not just of one nation, but the whole world; not just of ‘the spiritual realm’, but of the whole of human and earthly life in all its circumstances and conditions. Forgetting this, and refusing to take the risks in proclaiming the Gospel in the uncompromising terms and means of Simeon and Anna, the Church ceases to be the Church of the Incarnated Christ. Perhaps New Year ‘resolutions’ are not just the preserve of individuals. As Canon Burgess Carr, the Secretary General of the All Africa Conference of Churches, wrote forty years ago, ‘God’s intervention in human history is not to endorse man’s powerlessness: He came to take his position with them in order to free them.’ Amen to that!
The Light of the World. (greatriversofhope.wordpress.com)