Celebrating New Year’s: A Longing for Heaven

It’s New Year’s Eve! When we usher in a new year and make new year’s resolutions. We embrace the opportunity to put the past year — with all it’s horrible headlines, it’s death and disasters — behind us and turn our faces forward to a new year full of promise and possibility, the anticipation of spring and the hope of/longing for fresh starts. New Year’s is a celebration of God’s creational rhythm: death yielding to life, all things being made new. It’s is the external celebration of our internal longing for the completion of that work, the New Heaven and Earth. (Even if we hadn’t consciously thought of it that way. Ever wonder why nearly every culture around the world has a way of celebrating New Year’s with traditions revolving around luck, love, and life?)

The truth is, I hadn’t thought of New Year’s this way before today. I always enjoy New Year’s as a celebration of loved ones and a Lent-like opportunity for reflection upon my habits and desires. However, faced with the (privileged!) obligation of having to sit down and write something for Thinking Through Christianity on New Year’s Eve, I found myself in search of something to say about it all. Nudged by that small voice, I turned to my dear friend in the faith, Frederick Buechner, whose writings and weekly sermon illustrations always help me look at things in new ways, with fresh eyes of faith. 

Buechner’s devotional reading for New Year’s (included below) employs the New Year’s text from Revelation in The Revised Common Lectionary to reflect on the New Jerusalem (the Bible’s picture of heaven), our yearning for it, and the “secret of heaven,” how we can live out our longing for “on earth as it is in heaven.”

In addition to Buechner’s reflections, I’ve also included all four New Year’s readings from the RCL, which together provide the arc of our New Year’s longings throughout the whole of Scripture, culminating in Christ: Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, Gospel.

I hope you find these readings edifying, especially as some of the ways we’ve come to celebrate NYE can leave us empty and lonely and thoroughly un-renewed.

Merry Christmas and happy New Year, dear reader! Peace on Earth, good will toward men.

The New Year’s Day readings from the Revised Common Lectionary:

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Psalm 8
O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Revelation 21:1-6a
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

“Heaven” from Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith

“And I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying… ‘Behold, I make all things new'” (Revelation 21:2-5).

Everything is gone that ever made Jerusalem, like all cities, torn apart, dangerous, heartbreaking, seamy. You walk the streets in peace now. Small children play unattended in the parks. No stranger goes by whom you can’t imagine a fast friend. The city has become what those who loved it always dreamed and what in their dreams it always was. The new Jerusalem. That seems to be the secret of heaven. The new Chicago, Leningrad, Hiroshima, Baghdad. The new bus driver, hot-dog man, seamstress, hairdresser. The new you, me, everybody.

It was always buried there like treasure in all of us—the best we had it in us to become—and there were times you could almost see it. Even the least likely face, asleep, bore traces of it. Even the bombed-out city after nightfall with the public squares in a shambles and moonlight silvering the broken pavement. To speak of heavenly music or a heavenly day isn’t always to gush but sometimes to catch a glimpse of something. “Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more,” the book of Revelation says (21:4). You can catch a glimpse of that too in almost anybody’s eyes if you choose the right moment to look, even in animals’ eyes.

If the new is to be born, though, the old has to die. It is the law of the place. For the best to happen, the worst must stop happening— the worst we are, the worst we do. But maybe it isn’t as difficult as it sounds. It was a hardened criminal within minutes of death, after all, who said only, “Jesus, remember me,” and that turned out to be enough. “This day you will be with me in paradise” was the answer he just managed to hear.