Praying in the New Year

by Amy Abdallah

It was New Year’s Eve, 1995. I had just graduated from college that May and moved to Asunción Paraguay in July for my first adult job as a kindergarten teacher.  It was summer in the southern hemisphere, and we were on summer break at a time when I was used to cold temperatures and piles of snow in my native New York.

The week before, I had celebrated Christmas with my American pastor’s family. They’d gone to great lengths to get a real Christmas tree, and put the air conditioning on overdrive, working for a chilly Christmas feeling by battling the hazy, hot, and humid outdoors. The morning cloudiness had let us imagine a white Christmas, but when the sun broke through, we experienced midsummer’s tropical glory.

This night, a week later, I was with my pastor again, and though I’d never been to church on New Year’s Eve before, I was about to “pray in” the New Year. Apparently, this was a yearly tradition in this church, but it was a new one to me: we were about to have a prayer and singing service from about 7pm through midnight. That’s a long time—I remember taking a break outside with a friend who grabbed a guitar and played “Hotel California,” singing in a Spanish accent. Such a song was a bit of a contrast with the serious prayer going on inside.

We were praying for the future of the church, of the nation, of the world, hoping for good to triumph over evil. It was intense, and the atmosphere outside gave the whole evening a kind of apocalyptic feel, with smoky air and explosions all around. You don’t have to cross a state border to buy fireworks there, and everyone lights fireworks all evening, culminating in a deafening, smoke-filled, summer midnight.

It was fifteen years later that I found myself at church again on New Year’s—this time it was an Orthodox Church on New Year’s day, and it wasn’t even a Sunday! The first time I went, I simply thought it was a nice way to start out the year. I enjoyed beginning with prayer, like in Paraguay.

But I’ve learned the day isn’t really about the New Year; it’s about the life of Christ. You see, the church says Christmas isn’t over on December 25th. Christmas isn’t simply one day, but a season of twelve days, until Epiphany on January 6th. (And don’t all kids know that Christmas needs to be more than one day?)

So, New Year’s Day is eight days after we celebrate Jesus’ birth. It’s on this day that Jesus was circumcised and named, and both acts showed his identity.

Circumcision was the mark of the covenant (promise) God made. Those who were circumcised bore a mark on their body that set them apart as God’s chosen. And after he was circumcised, Mary looked at her son, the Son of God, and she named him Jesus, since the angel had told her to give him a name that means he will save the people. This is what we celebrate on New Year’s Day in the church: that Christ’s identity was sealed through circumcision and naming. Jesus Christ is God’s chosen to save the people, and Jesus was God in human flesh.

But why does that matter, really?

Well, Jesus Christ is our only hope. On this day, his identity and future were sealed for our salvation. Without Christ we would have no hope in the world, and it wasn’t only about his death, but about his life, death, and resurrection.

On this day, I like to think about my identity, too. Through baptism, not circumcision, I am sealed as God’s own, God’s chosen. Baptism is the mark we bear on our bodies of the new covenant through Christ. The saving covenant that came through his life, death, and resurrection.

And what does God name us? God calls us daughter. God calls us son. When I look at my sons, I am filled with love and joy, even when they’re not perfectly obedient. That’s how God looks at me; God looks at us with love and joy. Without receiving this love, I cannot be who I am, who I am meant to be.

It’s the most basic truth of Christianity, and yet I find it the most profound: my identity as God’s chosen daughter. I’m figuring out how to live into that identity as life goes on, as the Holy Spirit transforms me into greater spiritual maturity, as I seek to follow Christ’s example.

The liturgy states it well:

“The God of all goodness

Did not disdain to be circumcised.

He offered Himself as a saving sign

And example for us all.

He fulfilled the words of the prophets concerning himself.

He holds the world in his hands

Yet he is bound in swaddling clothes.

Let us glorify him.”

New Year prayer, New Year hope in Jesus Christ, New Year reminder of my identity. Whether you’re at church or at home, let’s celebrate all this together!