It’s New Year’s Day. For those of us on the calendar inherited from the Romans, it’s a day that looks both backward and forward with the two faces of Janus. It’s a day loaded with expectation, possibility, and contradiction.
For what, after all has changed? As always, we have grown a day older, the sun has risen again, we attend again to making the children’s breakfast, taking the dog for a walk. There’s a stack of mail we don’t want to deal with, dishes in the sink, and odd socks in every corner of the house.
Yet a new year feels like a reset, like maybe time is at least a little bit circular. Based on the solar year, our calendar literally represents an orbit, so we’re not entirely wrong to think this way. Maybe we need to think this way to get some purchase on the possibility of change.
The verse of the day on Bible Gateway is from 2 Corinthians 5:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Scripture teems with this January looking. Look behind, the old has passed away. Look before, everything has become new! What was a mountain is a plain, what was a valley has been raised up. The clay jars that once held grain now hide a treasure. New wineskins have been prepared for the new wine.
There is no need for faith if there is no hope that old can be replaced by new.
Growing up, verses like this concerned me because it didn’t feel like everything was new. I still knew sinful desires, still faltered daily, still fell far short of being the kind of creature God desired me to be. Did that mean I was not “in Christ”?
I had to develop an “already/not yet” theology before I heard anyone explain it in church. How else to explain the frustrating, discouraging dynamic pull between the light and the dark? Paul himself, earlier in the letter, uses the language of becoming:
Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
I felt then, and in a sense still feel, that the harder I pursued the light the farther I fell into darkness, as if one in a candlelit room extinguished each tiny flame by trying to catch it. I felt then, and in a sense still feel, that things don’t change nearly so much as they’re advertised to. The promised progress seems rather more like an orbit than a achievement. Another lap around a burning sun.
My oldest son, the Karamazov, is running on very little sleep, and he has already had a huge blow-up today. When he begins to lose control, he becomes like a kamikaze bomber, diving straight toward self-destruction. We pray every night to grow more in love and patience and forgiveness, and we fight every day about the same stupid things.
Look behind, the mountain is on fire. Look before, the valley is flooding. And we’ve been here before. We’ll be here again.
It’s this cycle that we most need redemption from. Not necessarily into something linear, but into a new paradigm. Scripture is paradigmatic, after all. We put away the old self and “clothe” ourselves with the “new self” (Eph. 4). The new self has a new way of being in the world, a new way of seeing and being seen by the world, has become an “imitator of God,” a “child of light.”
It’s hard to feel like a child of light when you’re losing it with your kids or when you’re yelling at another news story. There’s a version of “being spiritual” that is sweetness and light, is imperturbable and pacific and quick with a kind, usually wise word. There’s a secular version, represented by what we now call “influencers,” that’s all inspirational memes and #winning.
In my experience, this is a misunderstanding of what light is. The light that shines in a well-lit room is banal, insignificant, uninteresting—and it’s the light of too much Christian myth-making. The light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness is not just out there but in my own heart.
That’s why I feel God in those moments when my Karamazov and I are apologizing to each other and reconciling more than when, say, my team wins the game. The victory isn’t in things going right but in love setting them right again.
This gives love a kind of tragic character. Neither a Santa Claus nor a pair of wings for floating over the earth, love, says Paul, reaches its perfection in weakness, in suffering—and not the suffering of a child who didn’t get the toy he wanted but of the father who fears his child will surely die before he does.
When the mountain is on fire (again), love leads us to safety, then treats our burns. When the valley floods (as it does every year), love pulls us from the depths and performs CPR.
And maybe I’m a poor student of love, in good company with that ancient letter-writer, but I’m decades into this journey, and I seem to still get burned and drowned an awful lot.
With this one difference: each year—each passing day, in fact—as the cycle of dying and being resuscitated repeats itself again and again, as the wars and rumors of wars circulated once more, I grow more convinced that the paradigm of love excels any other as far as the east is from the west.
Surely there was one who survived the Titanic and spouted hate toward his fellow man for inflicting that trauma upon him. Better to have been one clutching her child as the waters rose, whispering words of comfort through her desperate sobs.
There was much to grieve in 2018, and there will be much to grieve in 2019. Personally. Communally. Lord, help me cling to love as the fires roar.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Brad Fruhaff
Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.