News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  31 December 2015  •  No. 52

Processional. African Children’s Choir, live at Coolum Beach, Australia. (9:23 minutes. Thanks, Connie.)

Invocation. “May your home always be too small / to hold all your friends. / May your heart remain ever supple, / fearless in the face of threat, / jubilant in the grip of grace. / May your hands remain open, / caressing, never clenched, / save to pound the doors / of all who barter justice / to the highest bidder.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Benedicere: A New Year’s Day blessing” poem

Right: Snowy owl photo by Mo Ferrington

Watch this video (2:30 minutes) adaptation of “Benedicere: A New Year’s Day blessing.”

Good news. “NAIROBI, Kenya: Christian leaders have hailed as an act of bravery and selflessness the shielding of some Christians by Muslims after suspected al-Shabab gunmen in Mandera County ambushed a passenger bus. The gunmen sprayed the bus with bullets, killing two. But when they asked the 62 Muslim passengers to help identify the Christian passengers, the Muslims refused and told the militants to kill everyone or leave. Defeated, the militants left hurriedly, according to witnesses.” Religion News Service

Opening hymn.I Am a Pilgrim,” by Doc Watson.

The origins and significance of New Year’s Eve “Watch Night” services. “’Watch Night’ services began in 1733 with the Moravian communities in what is now the Czech Republic. By 1740 John Wesley and his Methodist movement within Anglicanism had adopted the tradition. . . . In African American churches New Year’s Watch Night services have special historical significance, since on New Year’s Eve in 1862 many gathered in sanctuaries to await news of President Abraham Lincoln’s promised Emancipation Proclamation.” —Continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Watch night history: Awaiting the quelling word." The text for “The quelling word: Emancipation is (still) coming,” a poem inspired by the lectionary reading for New Year’s Eve.

Confession. “Dear Lord, So far today, God, I've done all right. I haven't gossiped, haven't lost my temper, haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or over-indulged. I'm very thankful for that. But in a few minutes, God, I'm going to get out of bed. And from then on, I'm probably going to need a lot more help. Amen.” —anonymous

Words of assurance.Blessed Assurance,” performed by CeCe Winans, Terence Blanchard and the Cicely Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts Choir, during this week’s Kennedy Center Honors, one of whose recipients was Tony Award winning actress Cicely Tyson.  (Thanks, Abigail.)

Eat before you go. Restaurant prices in New York City’s Times Square district will be steep on New Year’s Eve. Dinner at the Olive Garden, for instance, will run you $400. Of course that includes an open bar, all-you-can-eat buffet, DJ and dancing and champagne toast at midnight. (I’m guessing bread sticks, too.)

Right: Mayan calendar, photo by Shutterstock.

¶ “What time is it, really? / By lunar or solar computation? / Do we reckon according to / Babylonian or Balinese or / Bahai regimen? / The Hindu or the Islamic Hirji / or the Himba people of Namibia, / who simply mark the new year / by the coming of rain (the two words / being the same in their language)? / Some forty time-telling calendars / are still in use, and not even Christians / can agree on their own, / with Gregory’s calculation splitting / East from West. / Amazing. Simply amazing.” —continue reading Ken’s Sehested’s poem, “Millennial Meditation” 

Video history of the New Year’s Eve party in Times Square (4:49 minutes). (Hint: It was a New York Times newspaper promotion.) The New Year’s Eve crowd will number about a million people.

Taking stock. Our New Year observances are often the occasion to remember the past and make resolves for the future. Remember the stunning monologue by Emily Webb in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”? Young Emily, who died prematurely at 26, is given the rare chance to go back, and she is overcome with how little life is appreciated. Here’s a 2-minute piece of that monologue.

What year is it? Counting time is a complicated affair, with no shortage of measuring sticks, most of them involving whether the sun or the moon is the point of reference. Currently there are an estimated 40 calendars still being used in the world, though the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants use one of six, and the majority of those use the Gregorian calendar for commercial and international relations.

       • If you want the juicy mathematical details of timekeeping, see L.E. Doggett’s “Calendars” at the NASA website. 

       • The Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII, 1502-1585), also known as the “Western Calendar” or “Christian calendar,” is the most widely used calendar around the world today. The Gregorian calendar's predecessor, the Julian calendar, was replaced because it did not properly reflect the actual time it takes the Earth to circle once around the Sun, known as a tropical year or solar year.

       • The Gregorian calendar was first introduced in 1582 in some European countries but was not commonplace until well into the 18th century. Turkey was the last country to officially switch to the new system on January 1, 1927.

       • Many Eastern Christian bodies continue to use the Julian calendar, which is why Eastern and Western church observances of Christmas and Easter are usually different.

       • A 6th century Sythian monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus invented the dating system now commonly used, dividing “BC” (“before Christ”) and “AD” (abbreviation for Anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord”). In the late 20th century the scholarly and scientific community began substituting “BCE” (“before Common Era”) for BC and “CE” (“Common Era”) for AD, as a means of deemphasizing the religious roots of the system.

       • Dionysius’ motivation was to standardize the observance of Easter by establishing the date of Jesus’ birth. But he miscalculated. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke say Jesus’ birth came during the reign of Herod the Great, whom we now know died in 4 BCE. Most estimates are that Jesus was born between 4-6 BCE in the Gregorian calendar.

       • The Gregorian calendar isn’t perfect: It’s off by 1 day every 3,236 years. The average year in the Gregorian calendar is 365.2425 days (which is 27 seconds short of a full solar year).

       • Sixteenth century Protestant tract writers responded to Gregory’s calendar by calling him the "Roman Antichrist" and claiming that its real purpose was to keep true Christians from worshiping on the correct days.

       • In the Jewish calendar, the year is 5776.

       • In the fourth century, Hillel II established a fixed Jewish (or Hebrew) calendar based on mathematical and astronomical calculations. The year number on the Jewish calendar represents the number of years since creation, calculated by adding up the ages of people in the Bible back to the time of creation. The Jewish calendar is used by Jews worldwide for religious and cultural affairs, also influences civil matters in Israel (such as national holidays) and can be used there for business dealings (such as for the dating of checks).

       • In the Islamic calendar, the year is 1437. The calendar dates to the Prophet Muhammad’s “Hijra” (“flight” or “migration”), when he and his companions fled persecution in his hometown of Mecca to the nearby town of Medina. Reckoned by the Gregorian calendar, that year was 622 CE.

       • “In 638 CE, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph, Umar, recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands had to be dated. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, and Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch.” —continue reading “Patters of Moon, Patterns of Sun: The Hijri calender,” by Paul Lunde

       •Historical records show that February 30 was a real date at least twice in history. Sweden added the date to its 1712 calendar following an earlier calendar error; the Soviet Union observed February 30 in 1930 and 1931 in an attempt to cut seven-day weeks into five-day weeks and to introduce 30-day months for every working month. (More details.)

Preach it. “Many years ago, I recorded this song and I felt like this might be a good time to kind of try to bring it back.” —Willie Nelson, performing “Living in the Promised Land” upon accepting the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Poplar Song at the 19 November 2015 DAR Constitution Hall ceremony in Washington, DC.

Altar call. “In order to penetrate a whole human life with the divine life it is not enough to kneel once a year before the crib and let ourselves be captivated by the charm of the holy night. To achieve this, we must be in daily contact with God, listening to the words he has spoken and which have been transmitted to us, and obeying them.” —Edith Stein

Lectionary for Sunday next. “Every discipline of spiritual formation is reckoned by some form of relinquishment. Which makes sense, because every dominant system will claim that what is possible is limited to what is available. People of faith believe otherwise; but in order to move forward a kind of retraction is needed. For many Christians, the inaugural act of this retraction exercise is signified by baptism. . . .” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Wade In the Water: Baptism as Political Mandate

Benediction. “In all seasons, in every shape and condition of our lives, transform our minds and hearts in ways that magnify the rule of Mercy: In ways that conform to Your extravagant and redemptive purposes; in our hopes and promises, in our joys and our sorrows, whether rising or resting, at home or away, at work and at play, with those near and dear but also with strangers, in our longing and our learning to love enemies.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “New year resolutions” litany

Recessional.O Magnum Mysterium,” Tomás Luis de Victori (3:29 minutes), accompanied by stellar photography from the Hubble Space Telescope.

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks:

• “Benedicere: A New Year’s Day blessingpoem

•“Benedicere,” a video (2:30 minutes) adaptation of the poem

• “Watch night history: Awaiting the quelling word

• “The quelling word: Emancipation is (still) coming,” a poem inspired by the lectionary reading for New Year’s Eve

• “New year resolutions,” a litany for worship

• “Wade In the Water: Baptism as Political Mandate

• “Millennial Meditation,” a poem marking the new year and millennium 

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Happy Epiphany, from our household to yours!