Friday, November 21, 2014

A Time for New Beginnings

Next weekend--I'll tell you now you so won't miss it--is the beginning of another church year. Happy New Year!

I almost titled this blog "New Year, again?!?" because if you're scoring at home, this is at least the third installment of our annual reset in the last twelve months. Going back to January 1, we have the "official" or civil, new year, in which the number on our calendar changes and 2014 becomes 2015 and so on. This is the New Year which gets the most press, and the most resolutions for reform and improvement of our lives as we head into the new year. Which is odd, because, aside from that change on the calendar, nothing really new happens. There isn't any natural boundary. We are still in the middle of winter--not quite the exact middle, either. Meteorologically winter begins about ten days earlier, with the solstice, though the manifestations of said season have at this point already been with us for as long as there has been snow; generally about a month or so. So there we are, in the deadest part of a cold, dark season (if you live in the Northern hemisphere, anyhow), and the groundhog won't even poke his head out and prophecy comfort for another month. And yet, we feel something new has happened. Out with the old. Let's start again.

The new year with the most effect on our behavior is the one associated with the school year. You don't have to be a child in school, or an adult in school, or a teacher, or a parent, to have the rhythms of the academic year hold sway over your life. Every August there is a great gearing up. Activities, scholastic and otherwise, begin. Both choral organizations I serve begin their rehearsals at this time. Our church choir also begins to sing. People stop going on vacation and get down to business. This great spasm of activity proceeds, with the occasional break until summer, when, as if it were a week writ large, there is a Sabbath for a couple of months. July is a particularly dead time at our church. Everyone is out of town, getting rest, preparing for another spasm of intensity to start in August. We don't have to attach any new year rhetoric to this one. It is new enough on its own.

At the other end of the spectrum are cycles like the fiscal year. Nobody much concerns themselves with those unless you happen to be the treasurer of an organization or work for public radio. Then the fiscal year matters a great deal. It begins with July. If you are a Methodist pastor that is also the beginning of another year, which might bring with it a change of venue. It is another mid-season beginning which exists in our minds, in the realm of numbers. Nature absents herself from those.

Many ancient cultures liked to begin the new year with the beginning of the growing cycle in the spring. Or with the harvest in the fall. If you live in the United States but have you roots in another culture, you may be celebrating their new year as well (ie., Chinese new year), on whatever date it occurs, based on whatever reckoning those in charge thought appropriate.

And if you still haven't had enough newness, along comes the church calendar, which begins anew on the First Sunday in Advent, generally the first Sunday in December, but this year on November 30. It falls four Sundays before Christmas, whenever that happens to be each year.

This yearly reset goes largely unnoticed, I think, unless you happen to work in a church, and it needs to be an uncommonly liturgically aware church at that, at least if you happen to be Protestant, when it is far from a given that you will follow, along with our Catholic cousins, the liturgical year as it was established so long ago.

Still, it is a beginning, even if it begins in sackcloth and ashes, rather than in the promise of spring, the smell of new textbooks, or the steely resolve to hit the gym every day. Our psychology seems to need the promise of the new pretty often; it is never long before we think we've screwed up the old and long to get another chance. Give us a blank slate and before long it is covered with illegible scrawl descending into incoherence and suspect meaning; give us another chance! We'll do better.

So if you are feeling like you need a new beginning, a chance to start over, to renew, refresh, jettison the burdens of the past, don't pass up November 30.

For my money, a new cycle begins with the promise of every moment. If you want to embark on a plan for Bible reading or exercise in the middle of February, go for it. And if you miss a few days, get back on the horse and keep going. Don't wait until next year because you broke the streak! But if you need some sort of officialdom to confirm you in your sense of purpose, then here it is: The start of a new church year. The cycle begins again, like freshly fallen snow. Oh, it'll get tracks in it, eventually. The paper boy won't think to use the side door and will wade through three feet of snow in your front yard and create a royal mess. But, at least for a moment, everything is new again. Always.

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