On the cusp of a new year, Portree Free Church minister Donnie G Macdonald reflects on some memories of past celebrations, and lessons learned along the way.
New Year, like reminiscing, ain’t what it used to be. My boyhood memories of New Year are that it was a huge event; Christmas, on the other hand, paled into insignificance by comparison. Christmas came and went very quickly without all the razzle dazzle we are now accustomed to, but New Year seemed to go on forever.
We used to gather at my grandparents’ house every Hogmanay. The house would be packed with people and come 11.30pm a strange air would slowly take a strangle hold of the room; each tick of the clock would usher in another degree of solemnity that reached a crescendo of silence at precisely one minute to midnight. The next minute was the longest minute of the whole year, a minute that filled me with fascination and dread. Dread, because I knew that in sixty seconds I would be overwhelmed by a tsunami of hugs and kisses from everyone in that room. Fascination, because as that midnight moment drew near and especially when Big Ben announced the end of the old and the beginning of the new, the big people became very tearful.
I would witness these New Year tears and try and fathom where they had come from. Were they tears of happiness or sadness, tears of regrets or thankfulness, tears of hope or fear? I could never tell. And now that I am one of the big people I am embarrassed to say I am the one who gets tearful on Hogmanay. But I know something now I did not know then. These Hogmanay droplets do not come from one source but proceed from a whole concoction of happiness, sadness, regrets, thankfulness, hopes and fears. They are droplets of memories and much more, a salty cocktail of the past, the present and the future. Standing on the threshold of a new year, and stepping over into it, may seem simple and unavoidable but it can bring with it very complex and unsolicited emotions.
In the book of Exodus, we read of the children of Israel standing on the threshold of the Promised Land; they were facing a new beginning as a nation, and God gave them many promises. The kind of promises which, if given to us for 2017, would have us jumping our height with joy. He promised them that they would continue to know his kindness and love. He promised them that they would know his guidance and direction. He promised them that they would know success and prosperity. Things were going to be great as he led them into the land of promise and their future would be secured. However, the Bible says that having received such promises they were distressed and cried.
I am back to being that wee boy again, trying to understand the Hogmanay tears and where they have come from. But with big person’s eyes, and looking at the bigger picture it all becomes clear. There was one thing missing in the list of promises; they had not been promised the presence of God. “ I will give you all these things, but I will not go with you”, said God. And so Moses speaks to God and cries out saying, “unless your presence goes with us don’t let us take another step. We may have your blessing, your guidance, your security, but if we don’t have you it is not enough.” No matter what was promised to them, it all seemed empty unless they knew the blessing of God’s presence.
As we stand on the threshold of a new year, what are we hoping 2017 will bring? Love? Health and happiness? Success and wealth? Even if we experienced all these things, even if God guaranteed us all these things, there would still be something missing, something much more important: the presence of God and the peace that he brings. That is why our prayer to God as we shuffle up to the threshold of 2017 should be an echo of the prayer of Moses: “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here”. Whatever challenges or blessings the next year holds it is his presence alone that will truly make 2017 a good new year. It is his presence that will bring us peace no matter what the problems. And so we plead and embrace the greatest promise of all, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age”.
Donnie G Macdonald is the minister of Portree and Bracadale Free Church on the Isle of Skye.