Resolution time. New Year. New you. New …
The making of New Year’s resolutions is about 4,000 years old. The ancient Babylonians were the first to hold recorded celebrations for the new year (which for them was in mid-March when the crops were planted). Besides the twelve-day religious festival, they crowned a new king at the beginning of the new year or reaffirmed loyalty to their reigning king, and made promises to their gods to pay their debts and return anything they had borrowed from others. The Babylonians believed if they kept their word they would be favored by the gods. Julius Caesar established January 1 as the beginning of the new year circa 46 B.C. The calendar month January was named for Janus, a two-faced god who looked backwards into the past year and forwards into the future. The Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct the year to come.
Our popular New Year’s resolutions aren’t far removed from these ancient practices. I don’t know about you, but the practice of New Year’s resolutions is not that helpful for me, and judging by the abundant blog posts that come out at this time of year, it doesn’t seem that constructive a practice for a lot of people.
So this year I turned to the three kings who followed a star to the crib of the King of kings for advice on how to step into the new year 2021. The magi are identified as Melchior who hailed from Persia, Gaspar (also called “Caspar” or “Jaspar”) from India, and Balthazar from Arabia. The three kings were religious scholars, revered Babylonian astronomers and astrologists. They studied the stars and planets, interpreting the meaning behind cosmic events. The appearance of the “star”—or the alignment of the planets in the heavens as we experienced on December 21— must have been rare and visually spectacular, and it would have been a clear message for the Magi. These things could certainly lead our magus to conclude that a Jewish king had been born. So off they went to speak with Herod.
We could say that these “wise men from the east,” entered into a new chapter of their lives when they observed the astronomical event in the heavens that has been called the Christmas star.
As they watched the heavenly bodies align in so striking a manner, they knew that they were called not just to observe the heavens, but be aroused to action, to follow, to be changed by what would be their part in salvation’s story centered around the newborn King of kings.
These three wise men had to “resolve” to pay attention to this new sign in the heavens.
They had to decide to take a long journey which meant leaving behind comfort, control, their plans, their companions and servants, their work, life as they knew it.
They had to choose to de-center their life from themselves in order to re-center it on this newborn King who was seeking them. (We popularly speak of them seeking the Christ Child, and in some ways they were, but the presence of the Christmas star was indication that the Christ wanted them to be there at his birth. He was seeking them first.)
They had to acknowledge they didn’t entirely know the meaning of this star and where they would find this newborn King, and they stopped in at Herod’s palace for help finding the way. How careful must we be whom we ask for help in understanding and responding to God’s invitations in our life.
This journey without directions and clear destination seems to be the way God works. In the Bible (and in my own life), God seems to relish sending people on journeys without saying exactly where they were going or how to get there or what they would find when they arrived or what they should be doing when they reached their destination or what would happen after the journey. Think Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul…
When I think “star in the heavens,” I picture one of those Hollywood biblical extravaganzas. After all this was a great astrological event that had been foretold in the Scriptures…. But the Star led to something, Someone very small. It led to a tiny family who didn’t even have a decent place to stay. A group of shepherds showed up for the event of this birth. “In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers.” Hardly did it match the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth:
‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities[c] of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’
This year, as I think about the days and months to come, as I think about the next stage of my life’s journey I don’t want it to be my journey, a journey that emerges from the center that is “me, myself, and I.” O Lord, decenter me I pray.
Here are five things I am taking from the story of the Magi from the East as I make my “resolutions” for the New Year.
First, don’t make resolutions. The three kings from the east didn’t decide that they were tired of their life and it might be a great idea to seek for God in some new way by following a star. No. They were sought out by the Star, invited to submit to God’s plan for them.
Second, keep your eyes open. The Star, the messenger of how God is seeking you, is already on the horizon. Like the three kings, you need to be watching the heavens for signs of the Star that will take you anew, on your knees, to bow before the Infant King.
Third, welcome obscurity, chaos, darkness, confusion, uncertainty, not knowing. It sounds like the pandemic all over again. However, these are elements of the spiritual life that we can’t get away from. In our younger years we take control and establish ourselves in careers, dreams, families, spiritual goals. We know. And all this is right for that age. In our middle years, however, God gently undoes all of this to draw us away from what we’ve built up in order to find him in the small village of Bethlehem. Then we learn that we do not know. And how blessed is this not knowing.
Fourth, believe that the star will lead you to God. No matter what we think we find at the end of our journey, God leads us to himself. The three kings brought with them gold, frankincense and myrrh, costly gifts for someone who was King, God, and Priest. At the end of their journey they found a baby in a poor village. And yet they worshipped. We too will see with our eyes things and people and events that are poor, not-good-enough, broken, vulnerable. Disguises of the Almighty, of Infinite Love. It is precisely here that God makes himself known. Allow yourself to be led deeper into Mystery. Into the Sacred.
Fifth, expect clues for your new life to be given you along the way. The wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to go home by another route. Once our hearts have been re-centered on God, our lives will be lived from another divine Source. This shift is more important than the flexing of our moral muscles in resolutions to become a better person. The end of our journey of sanctification is to become like God through grace, what some ancients have called “deification.” How much more rewarding.
I would like to close with the second verse of one of my favorite Christmas carols: Sleep on, Little King. It is an English translation of an Italian carol with the tune Ninna, Nanna. Since we are a congregation with Italian roots, the song was probably translated by our sisters many years ago, so you most likely haven’t heard this carol. So here is the second verse:
Wonder of wonders,
Myst’ry of mysteries,
Upon the heart of the young Virgin Mother
Rests the Maker of all the world.
God’s eternal Word
Reunites man with the Father;
His love is revealed—
The hills rejoice, all nature sing,
The angels’ “glory” rings forth.
Shepherds called to the side of the manger
Kneel in adoration and wonder.
Kingly gifts by the nations are brought;
The world surround His throne—
O come let us adore.
You have come to love and to save,
Come to lead us all in Your way.
Sleep on, my Jesus, sleep on, my Lord.
Matthias Stom: Konungarnas tillbedjan. NM 1792; public domain