New Year’s “Prophecy”

Someone else will blog about quite useful and scholarly issues on Monday, our usual theology day. I offer this weekend meditation triggered by New Years as something personal in the light of the coming term.

New Year’s “Prophecy”

New Years is itself something of an arbitrary time. The New Year for the (Western) church started on November 30 with the beginning of Advent. The New Year for Judaism and Islam will start at other times during the year. Chinese New Year will be on yet another date. The solar New Year took place with the winter solstice on Dec 21. January 1 is, in a sense, entirely arbitrary (it comes from the day that the Roman consul entered office in the late Roman Republic) although its use predates the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar (created in 1582, but adopted in various countries over a several century period). For the church Jan 1 is the Feast of the Holy Name, for being the 8th day after Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth (itself somewhat arbitrary in that Jesus was probably born in the spring, if Luke is correct that shepherds were in the fields), it is the celebration of when Jesus was officially named – his circumcision. In fact, it comes in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas, which officially end on Jan 6 with Epiphany, the beginning of a new season in the church year. But even if New Years is arbitrary and in the middle of a season, it is a time in which at least in our culture we look forward and often think about what might happen in the coming year.

Ironically, given the propensity to look forward on New Year’s, the past year ended with a rash of prophecy of one type or another. We had the pseudo-prophecy of doom connected to the Mayan calendar (which would probably have puzzled ancient Mayans, since for them the ending of the calendar was, like for us, the starting of a new cycle, not the end of everything). We had the prognostications about the school shooting in Newtown, CT, in which various people, such as Mike Huckabee and James Dobson (a decent popular psychologist but a dubious prophet and theologian) claimed to speak on behalf of God about the meaning of the event (as did the prophets of the Hebrew Bible) and perhaps hint darkly more would follow if the USA did not repent of the particular sins they identified. Such prognostications were denounced by many in the church, let alone the world outside the church, as both “news to God” and insensitive to human beings. On the other hand, we had, of course, those who looked back rather than forward and who therefore realized that the (Western) church remembers another slaughter of 20 or so (male) children on Holy Innocents, Dec 28, 3 days after Christmas; others pointed out that the US has had a string of school attacks, not just the recent string since Columbine, but one that reaches long before that, the worst in US history being a school bombing in 1927. Historians and theologians, then, point out that we have a faith that began with tragedy, so to speak, and live in a country with a history of such tragedy.

We look forward with more voices claiming the know the future, although they may not call themselves prophets. There was the talk of the “fiscal cliff” and what it might mean, and and now what the solution and the ensuing struggles in Congress might mean. There is talk about other scenarios, real and imagined (such as those in the “end-times” scenarios scattered around the internet, which are taken seriously people I know) . Some of these scenarios will happen, not necessarily because they predicter is accurate, but because the chances are high (statistically, if you predict that Jesus “must” return on a certain date often enough, someone will eventually be correct, assuming that the New Testament is correct in claiming that he will return). For instance, I can with reasonable certainty predict that HBU will field a football team and with somewhat less certainty also predict that the first season will likely not be a winning one, although it will be a win for the university as a whole. This takes no prophetic powers, but only the knowledge that playing football is planned, some of the players and coaches are basically in place, and that virtually all first seasons are not winning seasons, even if they are exciting and historic because they are first seasons. With less certainty I can predict that HBU will be approved to start a PhD program. That is the plan (so I have a basis for the prediction), but of course we could submit all the paperwork required and get turned down either because of a error on our part (which I doubt will happen) or because of the vagaries on the accrediting system. I doubt it, but being neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (and having some experience of the failures of human systems) I cannot be sure. I do not need the voice to God to make such predictions.

I may indeed have heard the voice of God on a matter – I believe I have from time to time – but mostly these have been about immediate concerns to me, guiding me when I was making a decision about something that I could not have foreseen. However, these occasions have not been frequent. Most of the times the heavens are silent, so to speak. And that is just as well. When I sit day by day in the presence of God in my meditation time, it is not so that I get “a word” (although I would not complain if I did since it would be His choice), but so that I can be with the One who is beyond speech and imagining, who is true beyond all truth (a far beyond our feeble apprehension of whatever is true), who is real beyond reality (and especially beyond what we call reality, since it is mostly our construction). Real life is about being and relationship, not about information. When I look forward to the year, it is not because I know what will happen (other than “more of the same,” the same things that have happened over the past centuries). If I did know, then I would have at least a modicum of control and that illusion could corrupt me. No, I look forward because I know the One who does rule, who does have control. I go forward with that One, and because of that I can live in trust and peace, knowing that whatever happens, as the archdeacon in Charles Williams’ novel War in Heaven says, “This also is Thou.”

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