A New Year. A new, more virulent strain of COVID. Unprecedented pressure on the NHS. A new lockdown. In the USA and Hong Kong an attack on democratic institutions. Where is the good news?
In the shape of a vaccination researched and manufactured at lightening speed. In a footballer who gets the Government to change its policy on free school meals. In the love and care shown by individuals in local communities checking on the welfare of their neighbours.
A New Year should bring new hope. The Dominican theologian Geoffrey Preston, in a lovely book called “God’s Way to be Man”, said that the deepest meaning of the virgin birth is that Jesus represents a new beginning.
Catastrophes such as COVID or storming Capitol Hill leaves traces: collateral damage that can last for many years. The same is true on an individual level: the impact of a marriage breakup, or the descent into crime or addiction. Events like this can leave us disorientated, groping for a way forward.
It is worth reminding ourselves that Jesus was born into a time and place when it seemed the world was coming to an end. Another Dominican writer, Albert Nolan, in a thought-provoking book called “Jesus Before Christianity”, shows how Jesus was warning against a future catastrophe - the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the State of Israel by the Romans - if people did not change their behaviour.
But Jesus came to bring us hope, not berate us. He came to show us the way into the future. He modelled the behaviour that would bring us all a new beginning. He came to seek out, help and serve the lost sheep of the House of Israel: in other words, the very large number of those on the margins of society who were outside the law and thus without a way back to the future. It was Jesus’s compassion that created the relationship – not logic, theology or economics.
This wasn’t just about salvation for the individual, but for society as a whole. Eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners shocked the establishment of the time. In the eyes of the religious leaders, the Law meant you stood outside of this group, uncontaminated, to address a message of conversion. Jesus chose to stand inside. A new beginning requires us to review where we stand: to refresh our vision and re-examine our behaviours. It can feel uncomfortable.
The story of the tax-collector Zacchaeus shows Jesus’ growing reputation as a Man who offered hope and inspired change. When Jesus comes to town Zacchaeus wants to catch sight of this inspirational Man. Yet Zacchaeus is small, and cannot see above the crowd. What does he do? Climb a tree! Jesus is so taken with this wish to say “hello”, he invites himself to supper. Completely overwhelmed, Zacchaeus immediately offers to make reparations to anyone he has overtaxed! The Kingdom has come for Zacchaeus.
Maybe our resolution for 2021 should be to climb a tree to look for a new inspirational beginning?
Nick Day, Trustee