New Year’s Eve for Christians
This is the new years eve of the Christian calendar, the last Sunday before Advent and a new year begins. What do you do on New Year’s Eve? Many of us make a list of things to do or not do in the New Year. We reflect on the past year, what went well, what did not go as well as we hoped, and we plan anew. Looking back helps us see forward.
I am reading a book by Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to avoid the clash of civilizations. He recounts moments of global transformation in human history. First is the invention of writing: when the oral tradition gave way to writing sometime in the fourth millennium BCE in southern Mesopotamia. We don’t know exactly how and when it emerged, but the first evidence we have are clay tablets with pictographs on them, representing objects, animals, and symbols. Hieroglyphics was a family of scripts that developed in Egypt. Writing may have been invented independently in India, China, Egypt, Mesopotamia but it meant that knowledge could be transmitted from generation to generation without the limitations of human memory or the variations we notice when stories are told and retold.
The second event was the invention of the alphabet. While its origins are shrouded in mystery, there is evidence that alphabetical scripts were Semitic and that they emerged in the territory known today as Israel or south of it in the Sinai Desert. The inventors may have been Canaanites or Phoenicians or wandering folk later to be called Hebrews. The alphabet appeared early in the second pre-Christian millennium, in the age of the biblical patriarchs. The alphabetic symbols traveled along the trade routes until they reached Greece where vowels were added to the consonantal script. All modern languages today derive from this first alphabetical system. The alphabet allowed profound social and political change. The patriarchal and hierarchical forms of rule by king of pharaoh were seen as reflecting the order of the cosmos. But with the alphabet a new possibility arose, that of a society in which each individual has access to knowledge and with it corresponding power. Implicit in the potential or promise of universal literacy is the corresponding dignity of each and every human being. Universal literacy opens the possibility that every person has citizenship under the sovereignty of God. That idea is reflected in the first chapter of Genesis: being made in the image of God conveys to Human beings the idea of dignity.
The lessons we receive from Ancient Israel is that God, creator of the universe, does not stay removed from us, but intervenes in startling and memorable ways. Such as the liberation of the slaves from Egypt in the Exodus narrative: a central story of Torah.
Along the way, on the path to freedom, God entrusted his servant Moses with rules by which the covenant people were to live: under the sovereignty of God and as a community. While not always successful, the Israel of Moses and the prophets was an unprecedented attempt to create a society of equal citizens freely bound to one another and to God. We might say in short, the alphabet gave rise to the book and the people of the book.
Printing was invented in China several centuries before Gutenberg did so in 1450s in Germany, but in the European context the printing of Bibles, translated into languages read and understood by the people meant that ordinary people could read and study it. Nothing did more to challenge ecclesiastical authority than the fact that the Bible in vernacular translation was now readily available to large masses of people who could read and debate its meaning in the privacy of their homes. By 1500 (less than 50 years) there were 35,000 separate titles in print and about 20 million books in circulation. By the end of the next century, that number would increase tenfold.
Today we stand at another epoch moment in history: the invention of the internet allowing instantaneous global communication. We do not know and will not know for centuries what the cumulative consequences will be. Will it spell the end or a decline of the nation state? Will it lead to new forms of community and collaborative action? Will it hasten the demise of local languages in favor of the tongue of the internet? Will it raise consciousness of human suffering, and will it lead to a more compassionate response to the least the last and the lost or will the gap continue to widen?
The best investment we can make today is to ensure that every child has an opportunity for learning. Literacy rates in various nations vary widely. Education – the ability to not merely read and write but to master and apply information and have open access to knowledge is an essential element of human dignity.
In ancient times, wealth and power lay in the ownership of persons, usually slaves. In the feudal era they took the form of ownership of land. In the industrial age they went with ownership of capital and the means of production. In the information age they lie in access to and deployment of intellectual capital, the ability to master information and turn it into innovative creations. Multinational companies are becoming owners of concepts, brands, logos, images and designs. Education matters in society and for the future of every child. What you do for the least of these, you do for me.
Unlike many other things, knowledge grows by being shared.
Five years ago trying to learn about what passions drive service in this parish, I sat with members of the service and outreach commission and their substantive list of interests. Some items may have had a single sponsor while others had many hands joining together to ensure success. Looking at the list, it became clear that all of the items fell into two overall interests: reduction of poverty and enhancement of education.
These were the first two of the 8 millennium development goals.
Adopting Bester – providing what support we are able to encourage reading, food so that students can learn, clothing as you see down on Trimble hall, was of interest and has been a continuing project for us.
Supporting the rebuilding of the school at St Etienne’s in Haiti is another project and I am happy to tell you this morning that with the collaborative help of several parishes the community has clean water. The 8000 gallon cistern completed last Jan, now has the pump and solar panels to run the pump and the purification tank to clean the water and make it available to all who live in this hilly region.
Recognizing the need among our more immediate neighbors you created the community café and feed those who come month by month, recognizing the dignity of every person. Meeting needs locally and globally is a reflection of the understanding we develop in this sacramental community, baptized into the body of Christ, transformed by his grace into people who reflect his values, his teaching and his life.
I have never been homeless but I have stayed in places that were uncomfortable. While such moment’s increase my awareness of what other lives may be like, I had a home to go to so my exposure was transient and yet, it awakens me to the reality of Jesus’ words: whatever you do for the least, you do for me.
For this New Year’s Eve reflection, think about what you do for the least of these whom Jesus called brothers and sisters. Hear Jesus say, what you do for the least of these my brothers, you do for me. Read this passage this week as you approach next Sunday: our New Year.