Well, the Solar System keeps spinning. I'm sitting here as still as I can, which means whirling about two million miles per hour through this universe, in wheels inside wheels, on and on, waiting for everyone to shoot fire in the sky for the start of a new year. We're counting again. Tomorrow's a new day and month and year. Reset everything. Ten nine eight seven six five four three two one zero. Tic. One.

New Year's puts me in a funny mood: wondering how consequential things are. What are we counting when the clock flops over? Is it real, or we all just playing a big old game? What's the deal? Why the celebration? What are we celebrating? That fire in the sky, seen from the galaxy's center, doesn't brighten anything, does it?

Tomorrow we'll all look forward, play fortune teller and firmly resolve our wishes into reality or our shames out of reality. So we hope. Today, some people are looking back, thinking about all the things that are on the block, ready to get rubber-stamped "2013" in the old brown record books, shelved with those other things called history. Goodbye. We'll miss you.

Beginnings and endings, births and deaths, consequence and inconsequence and scale. Each year, I've looked for a poem or song or novel or movie or anything that either matches this mood or informs it. Two years ago, a baptism helped me. Last year, Annie Dillard did. And this year, Gerard Manley Hopkins came to my aid, as he often does.

Hopkins was a poet who loved his craft, but whose poetry was never recognized before he died. He was a churchman who wrestled to keep God first in his life. He was sickly from birth, but nevertheless wore his body out often in service to people or causes he cared for. He was deeply sensitive to human affection and beautiful friendships, but was disowned by his family and removed from his friends. He died young, in a place he didn't care for, unacknowledged by the people he respected, with the disintegration of his most-worked-on project in sight.

Halfway through his life, he wrote this poem.

--I am like a slip of comet,

Scarce worth discovery, in some corner seen

Bridging the slender difference of two stars,

Come out of space, or suddenly engender'd

By heady elements, for no man knows:

But when she sights the sun she grows and sizes

And spins her skirts out, while her central star

Shakes its cocooning mists; and so she comes

To fields of light; millions of travelling rays

Pierce her; she hangs upon the flame-cased sun,

And sucks the light as full as Gideon's fleece:

But then her tether calls her; she falls off,

And as she dwindles shreds her smock of gold

Amidst the sistering planets, till she comes

To single Saturn, last and solitary;

And then goes out into the cavernous dark.

So I go out: my little sweet is done:

I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:

To not ungentle death now forth I run.

He wrote it at twenty, with twenty five years yet to live. Halfway through. I think that's why it seems particularly important to me today, on New Year's Eve. I don't know whether, in a fit of sickness, he expected to die when he wrote it, or whether he just looked at his steps to death while healthy. But his living look toward death is very right today, while we mark that time passes with cheers. It's at turns in the road that new vistas open: we see the world fresh. At turns of time also, look out at the big, big view.

I love the last three lines. After sticking hands in and modeling stars in our minds, shooting out rays, painting them brightly, he applies that picture to us in three lines:

...My little sweet is done:

I have drawn heat from this contagious sun:

To not ungentle death now forth I run.

For this New Year's Eve, I'll share short thoughts on each.

My little sweet is done.

With this line, Hopkins meets my mood. I'm asking, "What's consequential? Why celebrate?" while I wait for fireworks to fly and think how small we are. He says, yes, we are little. But that's not all.

He has described the magnificent universe: its "fields of light" and "millions of traveling rays," its "flame-cased sun." This is the bigness and the glory. The universe we're spinning through. But the relationship between this big universe and us, so little, isn't one of contrast or diminishment. Rather, he calls us "full." "As full as Gideon's fleece."

If he's right, then the turn of this year is full of the turning of the cosmos. It's its little brother. Our fireworks are full of the flaming stars. That person there, across the room, is full of God. Do we become God, or do our fireworks become stars? No, but we're sweetened by them. We, and this world, and our lives are little sweets. We're like honey on the tongue. We are dressed in God's glory, and filled with it.

The glory and the consequence of God's universe and our littleness are not in opposition. Rather, they come together, like Christ did when he became a man. The immensity of God's light is meant to be housed in us. In me and you. We are little, but made sweet by being filled with God's fire.

I have drawn heat from this contagious sun.

"Heat" here is glory and beauty and life, and we've lassoed it. Drawn it in. That's the thing to remember: that glory is given, that every good and perfect gift comes not from inside us, but from the Father above. That we're made like comets are: to catch and hold the sun. And this glory-gaining game doesn't take much effort to play. That sun is contagious. Catching. God longs to be caught, and sends his rays out. He even places his light like an ember in this cosmos, liable to shoot out some sparks.

So, all life can resolve into gratitude. The glory is here and contagious. It doesn't depend on you, but you were made to house it. Hopkins could have said, "I have shone brightly and burned hot," and made us marvel at him. But he knows better. He says, "I have drawn heat from this contagious sun." Pointing away from himself, he helps us wonder and weep.

To not ungentle death now forth I run.

Death, though dark, is not ungentle. The turn of this year is not ungentle. When you know that you're cared for, that you and your God have no end, that history is a comedy so we're on our way to marriage and laughter, then you can be sure that even deep darkness or shooting pain is truly gentle medicine. It's a splinter softly pulled from the world's infant palm. Even when you shred your smock of gold, you'll find God gentle. Don't be afraid. You can run.

Happy New Year, friends. This little sweet, 2013, is done. By grace we've drawn in glories and seen beautiful things. Remember them? Now we'll run to the gentle black. We don't know, you and I, what 2014 holds, but –grateful and courageous– let's lay down these crowns and go.


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