Wednesday, 02 January 2019 07:54

New Year, Nothing New

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    A novel by the Irish writer Samuel Beckett begins with this sentence: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." The sentence is a neat introduction into the novel that follows, and into much of Beckett's work, including his famous Waiting for Godot. A similar spirit permeates the novels of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, for example, two other champions of the postmodern mood. That mood can best be described by one word: fatigue. 

    That postmodern mood is to be found also in a book of the Bible, namely the Book of Ecclesiastes. Its author, Kohelet, wrote the famous words, Nihil novum sub sole: "There is nothing new under the sun." The opening line of Samuel Beckett's novel is a clear statement of affinity with the biblical writer: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." 

    In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet analyzes the five main activities of the human experience--pleasure, work, human love, the pursuit of wisdom, religion--only to conclude that all of them without exception end in death and therefore all is vanity: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." If death has the last word, everything is vain, useless, futile. There is nothing new. Evidently, Kohelet penned his work before the coming of Christ. Kohelet expressed the postmodern mood over two millennia before postmodernism came to exist, because fatigue is a perennial temptation in the pilgrimage of life. 

    In this desert of fatigue a voice comes to cry out: "Rejoice!" 

    Recently, I was involved in a pilgrimage with ten young men to Andalucía, southern Spain. We visited Córdoba, Montilla, Sevilla, and the Virgen del Rocío. We celebrated Mass followed by Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament among the dunes of the deserted beach of Matalascañas. The beach was deserted because it was winter time, but the skies were clear and the sun was shining. During Exposition, we had God's own cathedral in the background, but the Mystery in front us was greater than the mystery behind it: behind the altar was God's creation, on the altar was God himself. 

    One of the boys was wearing a sweater with these words on his chest: "Nothing is New." You could tell by his face and his posture that he believed it, but then he went to Confession and everything changed. However, at this point I do not wish to speak of the resurrecting and renewing power of the Sacrament of Confession; I wish to speak of sweaters. 

    Speaking of sweaters, there is a story about a king who fell ill and seemed doomed to a rapid death. Perhaps he had depression, and fatigue. Nowadays doctors would prescribe lots of tablets. In the world of fantasies and fables, the king's doctors told him that to be cured he needed to find a genuinely happy man and put on his sweater. The king's servants were dispatched to the four corners of his kingdom in search of a genuinely happy man. Not an easy task. Especially in the kingdom of a mortally unhappy king. 

    Finally, the king's servants were pointed by some peasants in the direction of the home of a happy man: "The man you are looking for sings on his way to work, sings while he is working, and sings on his way home from work. He is always happy. He lives in a cabin over by those woods with his wife and ten children." 

    Sure enough, as they made their way towards the woods, the servants heard happy sounds emanating from the cabin. They knocked on the cabin door. The happy man answered and they asked him for his sweater. He replied: "Oh. I don't have a sweater. A poor man passed this way yesterday. I gave him the only sweater I had." 

    That's the end of the story. I have no idea what became of the unhappy king. If you like, you can make up your own ending as far as that's concerned. 

    It is not true that there is nothing new. Christ is the happy Man with no sweater. He was stripped of His garments. They cast lots for His tunic. He was rich and became poor. He is the King who became a Slave, the almighty God who became a naked Child so that men could take Him in their arms and "hear" in His gaze the words "Thank you" directed from God to His creature. 

    Ever since, there has been something eternally new, Someone eternally new, under the sun. We call this the Gospel, the Good News, because it is new and it is good. 

Fr Colm PowersFr. Colum Power, born in Cork, Ireland, in 1965, is a Servant Priest of the Home of the Mother. He obtained a Master's degree in literature in 1991 and a doctorate in the History of the Church in 2013. He is author of A Touch of the Gardener's Hand, Honey from the Lion's Carcass, and James Joyce's Catholic Categories. He devotes his time to apostolic activities for the youth organized by the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother. Fr. Colum Power is author and editor of the FFA blog "Random Reflections".