Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Acceptable Year of our Lord

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Upon reflection, there is a certain vagueness in the well-meaning and traditional greeting that we share with relatives, friends and even passing acquaintances at this time: "Happy New Year!" To be sure, it is that very vagueness that protects this well-worn seasonal greeting from any controversy, and thus guaranteeing its continuing use in our pluralistic society. Yet however religiously, politically and socially neutral it may be, certainly when warmly exchanged, "Happy New Year!" expresses our natural desire for health, prosperity and the fulfillment of those wishes that bring "happiness" into our lives. The vagueness begins with the wish for happiness, as in the "inalienable right" to the "pursuit of happiness," for the definitions of happiness can be legion. What has impressed me in my own experience of life as I age is the elusiveness of happiness. Not meaning, of course, that happiness does not exist, but rather referring to its impermanence. One can be happy - or unhappy for that matter - many times over the course of a single day, let alone an entire year. And not to be happy almost implies today that life is barely worth living, that it can only be endured.

Without overly-digressing at this time into the distinction, I can confidently say that I would much rather be "blessed" than "happy." Blessedness strikes me as being far more permanent, stable and, most significantly, God-sourced. I would further argue that one can be "blessed" while simultaneously being most "unhappy," as in: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake ..." (MATT. 5:10) Even with stretching the word happiness to one or another of its outer limits, I can hardly imagine anyone describing that situation in life as a source of happiness, though one can remain blessed when persecuted due to the strengthening and consoling presence of God. For this reason, I strongly disagree with those translations of the Beatitudes that turn the Greek makarios ("blessed" in most translations) into "happy," as in "Happy are the poor in spirit." Something doesn't quite "sound right" in that form.

Be that as it may, there were specific petitions that we offered up to God when we prayed for a blessed New Year just the other night. Perhaps we could incorporate some of these petitions into that over-all web of interconnected new year's resolutions that we hope to remain faithful to once thought or uttered - from eating, spending and swearing less, to renewing long-lost friendships or overcoming familial hostilities. Here are a few examples from the Great Litany of the Service for the New Year:

That He will bless the beginning and continuance of this year with the grace of His love for mankind, and will grant unto us peaceful times, favorable weather and a sinless life in health and abundance...

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will plant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes...

That He will renew a right spirit within us, and strengthen us in the Orthodox Faith, and cause us to make haste in the performance of good deeds and the fulfillment of all His statutes...

That He will deliver His Holy Church and all of us from every sorrow, tribulation, wrath and necessity, and from all enemies, both visible and invisible, and that He will always compass round His faithful people with health, long life and peace, and the host of His Holy Angels...

The fulfillment of these prayerful petitions will be much more essential to our spiritual well-being than the cordial and party atmosphere exchanges at midnight a day ago of "Happy New Year!" that we may have passed around, champagne glass in hand. They will certainly be more demanding - and infinitely more rewarding - because they bring us back to the basics of the Gospel: repentance, conversion, forgiveness, struggling with self-aggrandizement and self-will, strengthened by charity, prayer and fasting. In fact, perhaps we should all make a point of reading the Sermon on the Mount (MATT. 5-7) again carefully as we embark on the adventure of a new year that we pray and hope will be blessed. There we will newly discover the way of life that is in harmony with the Kingdom of God, brought to us by Christ.

A fairly recently reposed Orthodox monk once said: "It is later than you think." This new year of 2008 means that we are one year older than last year, and hence that much closer to our end, the precise time of which is known only to God. That is certainly not meant to dampen the over-all hope and confidence that we may have as we begin this new year, but to remind us all of the precious gift of time. In fact, in the final prayer "on bended knees" that we offered to God for the upcoming new year, we thanked God for "the passing time of our life." If we get closer to God during that "passing time of our life," then our lives have been filled with significant meaning. But we also face the danger of somehow getting lost in a vain "pursuit of happiness" that even the founding fathers would not recognize as what they meant when formulating that phrase. As Christians, we are beginning the Year of our Lord 2008. Time belongs to the Lord for He is its Creator. It is given to us as a gift, and thus we are stewards of the time allotted to us by God in His wisdom. Now is the "acceptable year of the Lord." (IS. 61:1-2; LK. 4:18-19)

Fr. Steven

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