Jan. 6, 2021. Sadly, for most Americans, that date has become one of those squares on our calendars that calls to mind a dizzying circle of events we will not soon forget. It joins other dates that will live in infamy. Dates like Dec. 7, 1941; June 6, 1944; Sept. 2, 1945; Nov. 22, 1963; and Sept. 11, 2001.
Jan. 6 of last year interrupted our extended New Year’s celebrations in which we were dreaming of a COVID-free world. Our hopes that 2020 would find our vision for the future less-blurry and less-bleary were blindsided. Seemingly without notice, the 12th day of Christmas gave way to the deafening sound of much more than 12 drummers drumming. The audio that accompanied images on the nightly news that unforgettable day was more akin to the sounds of anarchy.
How ironic that the events in our nation’s Capitol last January occurred on the day Christ-followers around the world know as Epiphany. It is that day Orthodox Christians have historically observed as the birth of Christ. It is the day western believers have identified as the day when the magi from the East arrived in Bethlehem to present their gifts to the infant Jesus. It is a day that acknowledges the universal nature of God’s love and the Creator’s blueprint for peace on earth displayed against the backdrop of power grabs, deceit and human suffering.
When the stargazers neared their destination, they conferred with King Herod. This ego-driven monarch, drunk on power and intimidated by their mission, misled the magi. Feigning sincerity, Israel’s king proceeded to marshal his jealous rage from the capital city of Jerusalem to the unsuspecting babies in Bethlehem. The result was what history records as “the slaughter of the innocents.”
Although Herod had entreated the magi to report back to him when they had delivered their gifts to the holy family, they disregarded his instructions. Instead, as the Gospel account indicates, “they went back home by another road.” (St. Matthew 2:12 CEV)
That verse reminds me of a traditional way our family would spend New Years Eve when I was a boy. Each December 31st, my pastor-father conducted a “watch night” service in our little church. We would gather as a congregation about an hour before midnight. Following the singing of hymns and prayer, Dad would summarize the story of the magi and underscore the fact that they returned to their homeland in a way differently than they had approached Bethlehem.
My father loved to point out that “having encountered the love of God in human form, their lives were changed. As such, they went home differently.” Dad invited his flock to consider what changes they might commit to for the coming year before returning home following the late-night service.
To help members of the congregation tangibly express their resolve for change, my dad would have the ushers distribute stamped envelopes, a sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen. Individuals were then invited to write a letter to themselves verbalizing changes they desired to make in the coming year. They then were asked to seal the envelope and address it to themselves.
Dad would keep the letters locked in his office for the year and then mail them to the parish members a week before the following New Year’s Eve service. Such an exercise proved to be a helpful source of accountability and motivation.
As we revisit what occurred in our country a year ago, I’m wondering what letter we might consider writing to ourselves as this new year commences. What did we learn from what we witnessed that we never want to see again? What are we willing to do to prevent history repeating itself? What did we discover from our own reactions to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, that require ongoing reflection and dialogue?
My hope is that Jan. 6 will continue to be primarily recognized as the adoration of One many acknowledge as the Prince of Peace. A Prince whose values and teachings will topple Kings, Prime Ministers and Presidents who serve themselves rather than those they are called to represent.