A Reflection on the End of the Year

DECEMBER 31, 2020

It is fitting to sing a hymn to You in Zion, O God, and a vow shall be rendered to You in Jerusalem. Hear my prayer; to You all flesh shall come. The words of lawless men overpowered us, and You will show mercy to our ungodliness. Blessed is he whom You choose and help; he shall dwell in Your courts. We shall be filled with the good things of Your house; holy is Your temple, wondrous in righteousness.
Hear us, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of those far off at sea, He who prepares mountains in His strength, who is girded with power, who troubles the depth of the sea, the sounds of its waves. The nations shall be troubled, and those who inhabit the ends of the earth shall be afraid because of Your signs; You shall gladden the outgoings of morning and evening. You visited the earth and watered it; You enriched it abundantly; the river of God is filled with waters; You prepared their food, for thus is Your preparation thereof. Water its furrows; multiply its fruits; with its raindrops the earth will be gladdened when it produces fruits.
You will bless the crown of the year with Your goodness, and Your fields will be filled with fatness; the desert fruits will be made fat, and the hills will be girded with rejoicing. The rams of the sheep are clothed with wool, and the valleys shall abound in wheat; they will shout and truly sing hymns. (Psalm 64/65)

Good riddance 2020. I feel confident that I speak for the whole world when I write those words. We are all tired, some are sick, some struggle with finances, some with depression, some with despondency, etc. But no one is terribly joyful or happy about conditions in our world at this moment, and all are glad to see the year 2020 fade into the mists of history. We continue in the days of grace that is our celebration of the coming of the Son of God in the flesh. Tomorrow is New Year’s Day. We know that it is just one day after today, but like other “markers” that life and even the Church give us, it is a day that gives hope. Renewal is an essential element in the Christian life. The Child we celebrated was the beginning of our hope and renewal. Hope and the possibility of something renewed and made better makes repentance possible, and January 1st (although an artificial and arbitrary human calculation) is a sincere “turning of the page” to most people. We enter the new year with hope and the prayer that things will be better than this past year. Human beings need that type of hope in their lives in order to keep going.

Psalm 64 (Septuagint numbering, Orthodox Study Bible) quoted above is an ode written as the people of Jerusalem were preparing for their exile to Babylon. It is a fitting and appropriate prayer for us on the threshold of a new year — especially coming out of a difficult one. The psalm begins with a lament that “lawless men overpowered us.” We are to be reminded (daily!) that we are in exile also, both us as individuals and the Church in general. “Babylon” means “confusion” and Jerusalem is the City of Peace. So we sojourn as a Church into the midst of confusion and chaos in the world, living in exile from our true home, heaven. But we also sojourn as individuals, living in the midst of confusion, chaos, suffering, death. A pandemic (how I am sick of that word…) has reminded us in continuous and very graphic ways that we are in exile. This suffering, both from the illness and the various attempts to mitigate it imposed in society by government and others, cannot be what we were made for by our Creator.

Then the Psalmist glorifies God despite getting ready for exile: “Hear us, O God our savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth…” We hear those words every time we celebrate the Litiya (the blessing of loaves, wheat, wine and oil) on a feastday. He is the one who made the heavens and the earth, He is the one who troubles the seas, He is the one who “gladdens” the morning and the evening, giving a new day. He waters the earth and brings forth fruits, the rain gladdening the very earth it falls upon. In the difficulties and darknesses that sometimes surround us, we glorify God because we remember that no matter where we are, no matter the circumstances good and bad of our lives, no matter the plagues on the earth, we are always in exile. In the midst of that exile, however, we remember that God is the One who watches over us and cares for creation itself. Indeed, the Psalmist sings glorious praise as they are literally packing their bags. No matter the year we just endured, we can remember and glorify God, who loves us and watches over us, strengthening us to journey through the exile of this life and this earth to come to our true home.

Finally, the Psalmist exults God with not a hopeful prayer asking anything of God, but with a statement of fact: “You will bless the crown of the year with Your goodness!” Everything will be filled with “fatness” (i.e. bounty and the good things of life), everything will shout and truly sing hymns. We enter a new year knowing that God will bless the crown of this year with His goodness. We are tempted to think that He forgot that somehow during 2020. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. For the blessing that the crown of the year receives from God is not some “thing.” Not good health. Not riches and bounty on our tables. Not great weather and peaceful times. The world is an exile for us and poor health, poverty, hunger, turbulent weather, and violence, will always be here. Some years seem worse than others, but that is just the cycles of history.

No, the blessing that God places on the crown of the year is Himself. Just as Israel knew they were going into exile as part of God’s will, they also knew that He would walk with them through that exile. They would come back to Jerusalem. So we begin the new year with the certainty that God will bless the crown of our new year the same way — He allows us to walk through the exile of this life never leaving our sides, and always leading us to the only true home we have ever had — the Kingdom of Heaven. I have no idea what blessings or crosses today brings, much less 2021. But I do know that whatever they are, we never meet them alone.

Happy New Year! We begin one more year in exile, never forgetting our true home and longing for the moment we can return. God grant!