My partner is master’s level swimmer. She swims about a mile and a half a day at our local community pool, as she has done for years. Every year, about this time, the pool is plagued with people she calls “Resolutionists”. These people have made getting in shape their top New Year’s resolution, and intend to get in shape overnight, come hell or high water.
The problem is they don’t swim very well, and they aren’t very cognizant of swimming etiquette (for example, swimming counter-clockwise when you are sharing a lap lane with someone). They also splash a lot. The good news about the Resolutionists is that they only last one or two weeks, then the regular swimmers get the pool back to themselves.
While it’s a good idea to make New Year’s resolutions. a far better model for pursuing positive life change is that of the magi – or wise men – in the Gospel reading this week. To begin with, the magi were astrologers. They studied the patterns of the stars and made recommendations to their leadership for strategic action. The perceived motions of the stars were predictable (they were actually stationary – the earth was the one in orbit). Making New Year’s resolutions based on things that are inherently unpredictable – like health or money – is generally a losing proposition. Even if we succeed in establishing the most stringent exercise regime possible, we could get hit by a bus the next day. Accidents happen. Layoffs happen. It’s far better to hitch our wagon to a star, so to speak, as a symbol of divine inspiration.
Now, in saying this, I want to make clear that I am not instructing people to become astrologers or making any pronouncements on the Biblical precedent for astrology. The stars, in Luke’s Gospel, are simply metaphors for wisdom and a higher order. The Star of Bethlehem is the pointer toward the infant Jesus, it is not the destination.
So, with that said, another way in which the magi differ from the Resolutionists is that they had a general idea of where they are heading (toward the star), but they were open as to how and when they would get there. They did not have a GPS or a self-help manual (see “Following the Light, not Hounding It“). They were, consequently, open to surprises. The biggest surprise of all must have been the Christ-child Himself, who was definitely NOT royalty (in the expected sense) with Mary, his impoverished mother, watching over Him. Nonetheless, the magi “were overwhelmed with joy … and they knelt down and paid Him homage” (Matthew 2:10-11). The destination is not always what we think it is, but God generally has much better things in mind for us than we do.
Finally, the magi differ from the Resolutionists in that they are willing to let the journey change them. Resolutionists have their life-change plan pre-plotted, mapped out, and intend to follow it to the letter. Then, when their plans turn out to be unrealistic (such as a two-hour swim every day after years of inactivity), they simply quit. The magi were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, who had asked them to give him directions to the Christ-child, “they left for their own country by another road” (vv.12). The road after Christ had changed. Their lives had changed. They were no longer the same people who set out thinking that they were going to go pay homage to royalty.
So as we are thinking about how to make the best of the New Year, maybe we can put the resolution list down for a while and look up at the stars, like the magi did. Then, maybe we can be as open to surprises and change in the New Year as they were.