I am a traditional Scot. For many years I have much preferred New Year’s Day to Christmas. Although as a Christian I like the idea that we can celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, I often found Christmas to be too garish, tinselly and commercialised.
New Year’s Day, however, was different. It was the ringing out of the old and the bringing in of the New.
I remember as a young person going with family to the watchnight service in Dingwall Brethren Assembly, before gradually making our way home, first footing at our friends’ homes, climbing Fyrish before going to the New Year’s Day service in the Free Church. Whether Christian or not, it is always a good time to reflect and to look forward.
A New Scotland
For many of us in Scotland 2014 was an amazing year – from the big national stories such as the Commonwealth Games and the hopes and disappointments of the referendum to all the personal mini-stories, it has been in the words of BBC Scotland, ‘a year like no other’. And 2015 has entered with its own potential for good and evil. On the national scale there are those who have been enthused by the hopes and potential held out by the prospect of a new political Scotland. It is good to see so many people engaged and amazing to watch a politician selling out venues normally reserved for mega-rock stars.
However, my fear is that those who have had their hopes of a new Scotland raised by political visions will soon have them dashed. Even if change comes, such is human nature that the Who’s cynical anthem Won’t Get Fooled Again, is likely to be proved yet again. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.
There are atheists with an almost Messianic belief that if we could only get rid of the virus of religion, we would all share the same ‘enlightened’ values (i.e., theirs) and live happily ever after in a secular liberal egalitarian utopia. Tom Nairn’s infamous phrase “Scotland will never be free until the last minister is strangled with last copy of the Sunday Post” – has been reworked into an article of faith for the New Scottish Utopians.
I have a suspicion that the age-old dream of eradicating religion will not be fulfilled and instead is likely to lead into a nightmare. In chasing out the demon we know, we need to be careful that we are not just making room for one seven times worse.
A New Person
Of course a new year means that another year of our lives has gone. We are another year wiser, or if you wish to be a bit morbid, another year closer to our death. Faced with increasing years many long for some kind of physical and emotional renewal. Three years ago I entered the new year having spent almost three months in Ninewells hospital, coming very close to death. When I got home just in time for Christmas I had to learn to walk again and I had a renewed appreciation of the basic gifts of life – clean air, water, food, music, family, friends and Talisker! Some will have entered this new year without that appreciation – fearful of ill heath, worried about work, concerned about finances and broken in a broken society. If only there could be a real new beginning!
A New Birth
The novelist Nick Hornby, in his How to be Good, recognised this desire for a complete fresh start; “When I look at my sins (and if I think they’re sins, then they are sins), I can see the appeal of born again Christianity. I suspect that it’s not the Christianity that is so alluring; it’s the rebirth. Because who wouldn’t wish to start all over again?” The term ‘born again’ has become almost unusable in Scottish Christianity today because it has been tainted with the idea of some kind of ignorant redneck tele-evangelist ‘stealing money from the old, the sick and the poor’ – as St Bono puts it. But the idea of renewal, regeneration, being born of the Spirit, the New Birth, is a radical and profoundly attractive idea. It is at the heart and essence of Christianity. It is why Jesus came. He did not come to give us a Christian political party, or to encourage us in the moralistic therapeutic deism that is the default religion of the Western world. He did not come just to tell or show us how to be good. He did not come so we could have faith ‘once a year’ or be identified with a socio-economic or particular ethnic grouping. He did not come to kill. He came to give life. New life. He came to make all things new. He does that by offering forgiveness through his work on the Cross and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Christmas is the gateway to Easter, Easter the gateway to Pentecost. New birth is the work of Spirit given in response to the work of Christ on the cross. He was given by the Father that we might be born again.
Maybe this is what Scotland needs most. Not the re-branding of Christianity, rather the radical proclamation of the greatest news. “God so loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Behold, says Jesus, I make all things new!
• David Robertson is director at Solas Centre for Public Christianity, Dundee