The New Year and new decade have predictably encouraged the media in the past few days to follow the Roman deity Janus in looking backwards to evaluate the year past and to look forward in order to predict what may be coming our way. This annual stock-taking has, it seems, become something of a hand-wringing exercise in pessimism, with commentators dwelling upon our national political divisions, international conflict, climate crisis and anxiety about our well-being, both physical and emotional.
The Christian festival of the Epiphany, which falls upon 6th January provides a welcome counterpoint to such existential gloom. It is a festival of light. A star manifests the coming of God as a human child to the Gentiles, as represented by those wise men from the East. Here at last is a Saviour for the world, and the Good News is that his promise of salvation is for all of humanity.
But then there are those three gifts that the wise men bring. Gold and frankincense are just fine, but myrrh was surely a bit of a party pooper. Used to the embalm the dead in the ancient world, it was perhaps the equivalent of giving a bunch of chrysanthemums to an Italian household. It is a type, a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrificial death at Calvary, as the hymnody goes:
“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb”.
So down descends the seasonal gloom once again. But no, this misses the point entirely. That tomb and the concomitant Resurrection are precisely what brings hope to the world. The hope of a restored relationship with our maker.
So, the Epiphany is very definitely a season for looking forward. I am looking forward very much to what the New Year will bring. Like many, I have made some resolutions; some of mine are focused upon milestones in running, not least my imminent 50th Parkrun. But a wider focus for my optimism lies not in individual goals, but rather in my hope for the world in which we live. Here I tend to think about all the young people with which I am privileged to work. I genuinely see in them and their emerging character, the basis for a positive view of our collective future.
This weekend I enjoyed listening to the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, on the Radio 4 programme ‘A Small Matter of Hope’. Nelson investigated the evidence for the contention that life is actually getting better and then returned to convince his journalist colleagues of what he had discovered. Amidst the data and expert opinion, three things shone out from Nelson’s analysis which really resonated for me. He observed that humans are capable of sympathy, self-control and reason.
These three character attributes; self-control, sympathy and the propensity to reason are virtues that we are attempting to develop and habituate in all of our Bennett students. As with all aspects of their education, character formation takes time, and there are setbacks as well as important steps forward. In this context I am reminded of the Queen’s Speech at Christmas where Her Majesty explained: “…in time, through his teaching and by his example, Jesus Christ would show the world how small steps taken in faith and in hope can overcome long-held differences and deep-seated divisions to bring harmony and understanding.” It is in seeking to encourage and foster such “small steps taken in faith and hope”, that when I look forward, I see reason for great hope.