What Lies Ahead?
This day has many different names on our church calendar! New Year's Eve, the First Sunday after Christmas, The Feast of the Holy Family. After a week of various remembrances in church history, including Friday's Feast of Thomas á Beckett, (Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed for standing up to King Henry II after which the king muttered under his breath, "Have I no friend who will rid me of this upstart priest?"), today we come to the end of 365 days of living. There is much to look back on, much to celebrate and give thanks for, much to grieve, much to struggle with and forgive. And we stand on the precipice of a new year, a fresh start, new beginnings...but not so fast. The horizon is not all that smooth in many parts of the world and even in our own hearts.
The Darkling Thrush
BY THOMAS HARDY
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Every year on this day, I remember this remarkable poem by Thomas Hardy, Victorian realist novelist and poet, whose writing indicated a view of life as a doomed struggle against the circumstantial forces against happiness. As he stood at the turn of the 20th century, New Year's Eve 1899, Hardy marks the darkness of the day and the future of the world given the conflict among nations up to this point. The aging thrush shivering on the frozen branches of a bare tree has little to hope for as the dregs of winter surround him. So too Hardy looks at the coming of a new century with nations warring in every part of the globe.
And yet...even cynical pessimist Hardy glimpses a ray of hope...though he doesn't claim it for himself, he does perceive it in this aging bird... a blessed air of hope that trembles through this little bird. So too I stand on the eve of a new year, unsure of what lies ahead, but faithful enough to know that there is a blessed air of Hope in the presence of God among us, God come to be one of us, that Glorious Impossible whom we celebrate, Love incarnate. I pray that all of us will rise from the manger where we have been this past week and give thanks for what was good in 2023 and look forward with "a blessed air of hope" for what is to come.
As I looked through my emails this morning, I discovered that I was not the only one who woke up thinking of Thomas Hardy and "The Darkling Thrush!" If you go to malcolmguite.wordpress.com, you will be able to listen to Malcolm reading the poem, (and you could even subscribe so you could hear him read his works and those of many others day by day!) Also in the Plough Quarterly, Julian Peters offers a beautiful artistic interpretation of the poem, (and another opportunity for deep and spiritual reading to come to your inbox!)
Happy New Year's Eve, my friends. May we all look with Hope to whatever lies ahead.