2021…2021… Say it with me…2021. Doesn’t it feel good?? A new year. A moment of hope, possibility, and promise.
I don’t think I have ever been happier to turn the page on one year and begin another.
How about you?
Mind you, 2020 wasn’t ALL bad…There were silver linings. Not even a pandemic, massive protests, and a highly charged election could separate us from the faithful, persistent love of our God. Even with all of the challenges, God’s grace was present in innumerable ways in each of our lives and in the life of this community and nation.
And, yet… I don’t think any of us would choose to go back to a year that was at times frightening, overwhelming, full of grief, and apocalyptic. A time that shook us up and stretched us, but also gave us some much needed perspective.
The hope is that because of all we have gone through, (and some folks have faced far greater challenges than others), we will come out better on the other side; we will have learned something; and we will change our unsustainable ways.
Of course, it’s not as if the pandemic is over yet (though having a vaccine is an immensely hopeful development), or that we have even come remotely close to fully addressing racial justice or the climate crisis, or that our country’s political divisions have begun to heal. But, as this new year begins, it is possible to feel that we are at least headed in a better direction, that we can begin this new year, like the magi, taking another road.
The celebration of Epiphany offers us some hints about how we might go forward into 2021 together.
First, all of us, like the magi, are pilgrims on a spiritual journey — the journey of life.
Like the magi, we get to decide which stars we will follow. We have the power to point ourselves in the direction of our heart’s desires. The start of a new year is an opportune moment to remember and embrace the truth of this. No matter what, we will chart a course for the new year. We will either do this unconsciously or we can choose to do this consciously. And even when unexpected events occur outside of us, like a pandemic, we can decide what to focus on and how to respond. No matter the winds, we decide how to adjust our sails.
Take Herod and the Magi. They both looked at the same event, the birth of Jesus, but what they saw, how they felt about it, and how they responded were entirely different. At the birth of the King of the Jews, Herod was stuck in fear. The Magi were drawn to pay the child homage. Herod was trying to hold onto his power; the Magi left behind their homes and positions to offer their gifts. Herod is a solitary figure concerned about his own interests, the Magi join together in community to follow their call; Herod is death-dealing; the Magi choose to protect life. Same reality. Different perceptions, feelings and responses.
When you look toward the year ahead, what do you see? Can you imagine it as a spiritual journey? Can you approach it as a sacred pilgrimage? Might you allow your heart, like the Magi, to guide you forward into the new year? Or are you more apt to be like Herod (as well as the scribes and pharisees) and allow your fears to sway you? Will you look ahead, like the Magi, and walk with others to discern God’s presence and protect life or will you be more like Herod, the scribes and pharisees, preoccupied by your own interests?
If, like the Magi, you allow your heart to guide you forward, the start of a new year is a good moment to pause and consider who and what you adore. As Jesus will say later in Matthew’s Gospel, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (It could also be said the other way: where your heart is, there will be your treasure.)
I imagine that the Magi, who were likely Zoroastrian priests known for their skill at interpreting the nighttime sky, had their hearts moved by seeing Mary with Jesus. There is often a certain tenderness that is palpable between a mother and her firstborn child. In the presence of a newborn or small child (some scholars suggest that by the time the Magi arrived Jesus may have been a toddler) our hearts can open in ways we didn’t even know were possible. Once the Magi recognize Herod’s evil intent to harm Jesus, they return home along a different route.
If we can tune into our feelings of love (whether for our children, grandchildren, partners, other loved ones, our country, the earth, God, or ourselves – to name a few) we might also be moved to do things differently in the year ahead.
Take a moment, right now… perhaps put your hand over your heart… Who or what do you adore? Who or what do you care most deeply about? Where does your heart come to life? As you start the new year, how can your heart guide your priorities?
One of the lessons from 2020 that I will take forward into 2021 was how I fell more deeply in love with nature. When I felt overwhelmed or afraid because of the pandemic, it was noticing the white lilac bush in my yard beginning to bloom, followed by delighting in the arrival of orioles, and watching the greening of the landscape that anchored me in a deeper reality than what I was watching on the news. I felt God reach out to me through the healing power of nature, offering me peace, hope, and joy. This deeper connection to nature was one of 2020’s epiphanies for me. What were your epiphanies? When did you see God acting in your life in a fresh, wholly unexpected way?
Whenever we are blessed by an epiphany, it is an invitation to take attentive notice. Often, when we do this, we are also led to act in new ways. In those moments when our eyes and hearts open wider to God’s action in our lives, we find it easier to make better choices, to go forward along an uncharted road. When we pay attention to the gifts of love in our lives, to who and what we really adore and allow our perceptions, choices, and actions to follow the Stars of our hearts, then our lives can shimmer with the light of God’s grace.
Often at the new year, we make resolutions to try to address our individual physical needs: to lose weight, exercise more, perhaps quit smoking or drinking. The Magi suggest a more profound way to look towards the new year. The Magi were on a search for Jesus. Can you imagine what your life might look like if you decided right now, that you were going to make the year ahead about searching for God? About discerning God’s presence in your life? If this was your priority in everything you did – in your relationships with your family, your friends, your time of work and your time of rest… How might your life become more meaningful?
If you think about it, aren’t the biggest challenges facing us as people really cries for love? (pause) What would it mean for us as a people in the year ahead if we looked at the issues of racial injustice, political polarization, economic inequality, and climate change not as abstract ideas, but as cries of real people and nature calling out to us for love? Can we see Jesus calling to us in the midst of the pain and suffering of the world?
To search for God is to approach our lives with a spirit of curiosity and wonder. It is an attitude of trust that God is at work in our lives and that we have the ability, when we pause and reflect, to actually recognize grace. It is an attitude of openness and acceptance to what is unfolding, to paying close attention to those people, places, and activities we adore so that we might detect God’s action in our lives and the world. And it is realizing that in those moments when we are called out of our comfort zones, especially when the pain of the world is crying out for our attention, that God needs us to be God’s heart and hands in the world. It is recognizing that all of life can be a spiritual journey of the deepest dimensions.
God gives us the power to decide where we will focus and how we can respond to what we see in the world. From among all of the potential priorities for where we will spend our time in the year ahead, we get to decide where to give our gifts. Recognizing who and what you love and who and what needs your love, how might you begin 2021 as a spiritual journey? Where will you search for God, especially within the opportunities and challenges that life presents you right now?
Karl Rahner, one of the most influential Jesuit theologians of the last century, reminds us:
“A new year has begun. During this year, too, all the paths from east to west, from morning until evening, lead on and on as far as the eye can see, through the deserts of life, with all its changes…these paths can be turned into the blessed pilgrimage to the absolute, the journey to God. Set out, my heart, take up the journey! The star shines… And we shall find the One our heart seeks.” Amen.