“When I became a man, I gave up childish ways,” the Apostle Paul wrote to his disciples in Corinth. Well, I gave up trying to make “New Year’s resolutions,” and carrying them out. In essential respects, New Year’s Day, the first day of January, is no different from any other day of the year: There is darkness; then sunrise and hours of sunlight; then darkness once again; and another day comes. There is nothing magical or essentially different about “the first day of the year.” One could make a stronger case, perhaps, for the significance of the two solstices that occur each year: the winter solstice when days cease shortening, and the period of sunlight will begin to grow; and the summer solstice, when the day of maximal light has occurred, and hours of daylight begin to shorten. These two days are, for those living on earth, perhaps the most significant days thinking cosmologically, or giving the physical world in which we find our place its rightful respect. Some date needed to be chosen to mark a “New Year,” and for reasons unknown to me, in our western culture that day is January 1. But it could have been March 1, or June 21, or August 15, or any other day of the year. Any such date is by convention, or by agreement or custom; the time and dating of the solstices, on the contrary, exist “by nature,” as they are grounded in physical reality: At two points each year, the earth ceases to tilt away from, or toward the sun, and then begins its motion in the opposite direction. Hence, the sun appears to “stand still” (the literal meaning of “solstice”) twice a year. On “New Year’s Day,” by contrast, nothing stands still, nothing substantially changes. Indeed, many remain relatively unconscious, having soaked their minds in booze the night before. What is new here?
To follow up briefly on the contrast between the winter solstice (roughly 21 December) and New Year’s Day (01 January), I would say this: Although I make no “resolutions” on 1 January “for the New Year,” I have long been aware that with the winter solstice and the subsequent gradually increasing growth in daylight hours I find in myself renewed energy, a longing to see winter forces yield to more moderate spring, and a desire to watch life return in all of its beauties in the world around me. Although the season of winter officially or in common speech only begins with the winter solstice, the growth of light foretells the transition from dark and cold to light and warmth. In the famous words of the poet, “If winter’s here, can spring be far behind?” No, indeed. And then summer, and fall, and winter once again. And the cycles continue before and after time.
So rather than “make New Year’s resolutions” (a popular and usually futile act), what might we do in this season of the year? The same thing that we need to do every day of our conscious lives: Seek to live well our human lives. One cannot “choose” or “resolve” to be a human being. That is by nature what we are. But we can choose to become more truly human, to become better human beings, to live more truly the divine life that remains forever our destiny and God’s gift to us. In Goethe’s well known phrase, “Become who you are.” And that means: Become a real human being, ein Mensch. That is our common human task--for all of us.
The intense and real danger for all of us today is that we have “so much to do,” are so busy, have so many duties, that we forget our most decisive task: To struggle again and again to open ourselves up to the truth and reality of the divine life that flows within. Spiritual life is no given. It is not something one has because one has been baptized, or merely because one shares in religious rituals, or even because one receives the Eucharist frequently. We can all just go through the motions of living, and do so relatively mindlessly. Our task is to be awake in our own lifetime, here and now; to recognize our ever-present tendencies to turn away from the Light; to reject the darknesses within and without; and to seek ever to move into the Light by the Light.
There is no substitute for the all-demanding effort to grow spiritually. No resolutions will suffice, no “good works,” and most surely no escapes into busyness, entertainment, drug stupors, social activities, the idolatry of sports, and so on. A real danger for self-designated Christians is that we think that because we are “Christians,” we are alive in the Spirit. One only needs to remember how many “good Christians”--evangelical and Catholic alike--cooperated with the Nazis and threw Jews and other “undesirables” into the gas chambers. One may be a “good Christian,” and so respectful of “the Bible,” and “the Church authorities,” and “the doctrine,” and so on, and be a very questionable human being.
Not a resolution, but a goal, a task: To become a true human being, made to the image of God, loving the divine in all of its manifestations, and ever renouncing the forces that close one off to divine reality. There is no substitute for this most basic task. To think that the task is easy, is done in a moment, or that one “has arrived” or “is saved,” is self-deception and an escape from the ever-present human task, written above the doorway at Delphi in ancient Greece: “Know yourself, that you are a human being, and not a god.”