Rivers in the Desert: Why New Year's Day Is a Christian Holiday
Growing up in Texas, fairly close to New Orleans, I knew all about Mardi Gras. It was a big deal in the South, replete with combinations of debaucherous consumption and self-exposure. What I didn’t understand, being the good evangelical Protestant that I was at the time, was that it actually was the celebration preceding the liturgical period of Lent.
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It was only once I framed the excesses of Mardi Gras with the self-discipline and austerity of Lent that it began to make much sense. Not that the gratuitous self-abuse was then justified, but at least it made more sense, given the things everyone was supposed to give up during the weeks to come.
This got me thinking about how we approach New Year’s Eve, and framing it, too, by what we expect and anticipate from New Year’s Day. Yes, the celebrations of New Year’s Eve are, in some ways, just an excuse to indulge ourselves in excessive partying, but they also stand in contrast against the hopes we hold for the following day.
We resolve to ourselves to do better, to be better. We look ahead, plan, dream dreams, make plans, set goals. It’s a time of optimism, a point at which anything is still possible. And although this is a traditionally American sort of optimism, I’d argue it’s also a type of hopeful visioning to which we’re called as followers of Jesus.
Consider the ancient Jewish understanding of Jubilee, that time every 50 years when slaves were to be freed and all debts, forgiven. Theologian Fred Craddock suggests that, perhaps, Jubilee never happened in actuality. He hasn’t found any evidence of such an event in his studies of ancient Jewish history. Rather, it was an ideal, much like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” prophecy, in which he laid out a vision of a more perfect world — one in which God’s kingdom comes that much closer to being fully realized in our midst.
We have such an opportunity on New Year’s Day, as the prophetic words in the books of Joel and Acts suggest, to see impossible visions and to dream impossible dreams. It’s a time to paint two opposing mental picture — one of the world as it is, and one as it could be. And unlike those empty resolutions we toss around on New Year’s Eve, these visions should compel us in the coming year, perhaps toward impossible ends, but making strides toward an inspired kingdom-vision in the process.
We’re called on as Christians to be idealistic, starry-eyed dreamers. We should be the ones people smile and chuckle about, because our faith in the redemptive potential of God’s people is so big and deep that our idealism seems absurd in the present context of our lives. And yet, that vision that we project and follow is so compelling that it’s not only enough to stake our own lives on; it’s inspiring enough to wake others from their indifferent slumbers as well.
We’re still in the midst of Christmastide, headed toward Epiphany, that time in the Christian calendar during which new realities and as-yet-unrealized possibilities are revealed to a world in waiting. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.“
Rivers in the desert? That’s pie in the sky idealism if I’ve ever heard it. But it’s the kind of foolish vision we’re called to embrace, and I invite you to join me in imagining spiritual rivers in the midst of our cultural deserts, overflowing with inspired possibility, for the coming year.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado, with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.