Thoughts on the New Year

And the one sitting on the throne spoke: See: I am making all things new. And he says: Write: These words are trustworthy and true. And he said to me: It has happened. I AM the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.

—Revelation 21—

More than six hundred years ago, Guillaume de Machaut, whom one could call the first composer of something like modern music, wrote a rather remarkable song for three voices. The text is very simple: In my beginning is my end, and in my end is my beginning. The two upper voices have exactly the same melody, except that the second voice is note for note the reverse of the first. The bass or tenor voice is a melody that goes forward to the middle of the song, and then winds its way back, so that it ends at its beginning. This song became one of the underlying themes for T. S. Eliot’s last great cycle of poems, the Four Quartets. And it is a theme that we can turn to as we look from an old year into a new, as from any ending to an new beginning.

What underlies the poems of T. S. Eliot is the truth that every end is a beginning and vice versa. Every sequence of development leads to a point of culmination. At that point we may leave the sequence behind—for instance, with the words “and they lived happily ever after”—or we must begin a new sequence. And as we follow events, we may begin to be able to form a picture of where in the sequence certain events belong.

To a large extent we imagine things around us at high points of their development. The fairy tale culminates with the wedding. We look at the roses on the altar, and we carry what we see there as our mental image of a rose. Who would imagine a rose that is not in bloom? And yet, most of the time, the rose is not in bloom. Indeed, a flower in bloom is for the plant a transitional stage. The plant does not cease to develop until it produces seeds, and then, especially in the case of the annuals, it withers away, leaving a seed pod which releases its seeds to be scattered on the ground. And there we come to the essential question as we regard the seed: is this an end or a beginning?

We may regard the events of the world in a similar way. Some of them carry qualities primarily of the beginning, germinating seedling. In others we may watch the possibility of growth and the spreading of foliage. There are the great culminating events where we sense that something in long preparation has come to blossom. Then there are those events, which come at the end of a sequence, where we may recognize how the activity has turned to contraction, withering, dying away. But in and around these latter end-events it is especially necessary that we look for the seeds from which new beginnings can spring.

In the past year we have seen world events and events in our lives which bear all of these characteristics. A great deal of our focus will have been on those events which are endings—endings involving destruction of one kind or another. In such situations it is all too easy to fall into a justification of quid pro quo, and the destruction becomes more widespread and universal. Or one can retreat into a protective position, attempting to preserve what is inevitably falling away. What is helpful to remember is that when something is destroyed, a space is created. The question can then be asked: what new thing can be built in that space?

Those of us with a more optimistic disposition may well turn to other great events. In some we may think to recognize a possibility for new beginnings. But we must be all the more concerned—are not many of those events like the roses in bloom on the altar? They have been years in preparation; many people have worked and sacrificed to bring about the conditions for such a moment. But a flower preserved has not completed its cycle; to be truly a flower means to wither away and scatter its seeds so that in the future more flowers may bloom. Perhaps we may even realize that some of the spaces opened up by the catastrophes we have experienced are the spaces to be filled by those future flowers.

Underlying all of these ends and beginnings—as both Guillaume de Machaut and T.S. Eliot well knew—is the alpha and the omega, the first and last of the letters of the alphabet of sounds from which all words are formed. At every moment, now and always, he is taking up the substance we are producing, errors and all, and transforming it into the substance from which he can make all things new. I can think of no better awareness to accompany us out of the year which is ending into the one which is beginning.

 

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