The Second Sunday after Christmas is one of a handful of feasts on which the prayer book provides an Old Testament lesson for the epistle (Isaiah 61, BCP 106). Isaiah 61 is the passage Jesus read and preached about in his first act of public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. He proclaimed himself to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy (Luke 4:16-21).
The messianic proclamation of Isaiah 61 is clothed in the Old Testament concept of the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25). God commanded Israel that every fiftieth year was to be a year of Jubilee. Leviticus says, “You shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land…and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants” (25:9-10).
In the Jubilee year, all land was to be returned to its original owner. In Israel, all land belonged to the families of the tribes of Israel by right of inheritance. The land could not be sold. The most one could do was to sell the rights to one’s property until the Jubilee year, when the property would be restored. This prohibited the accumulation and control of property by a few people.
Slaves were also released during the Jubilee year. One way a person could survive if he had become poor was to sell himself, his family and his labor to another. The Jubilee regulations limited the degree to which he could do this and provided for eventual freedom.
It does not appear that the Jubilee regulations were observed in any sustained way in Israel. The oppression of the poor by the rich, who had not returned property, canceled debts or set people free was a chief complaint of prophets like Amos (4:1, 5:11). Thus, God, through Isaiah, promised that a day would come when the Messiah would fulfill the promise of the Jubilee year.
Isaiah 61 expands the Jubilee promise. It talks of opening the prison to those who are bound. This does not mean that murderers would be set free. The prisons here would be debtor’s prisons, filled with those who had been exploited by economic activity ungoverned by Torah principles. Isaiah talks about recovery of sight for the blind, about healing for the brokenhearted, about joy for the mourners and “a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness”–transformations that call to mind the Beatitudes and Magnificat.
The promise of jubilee connects with the hope for new and better things that accompany the beginning of the new year. People make resolutions to live in a new way, which reflect a basic human desire to begin again, to have a fresh start. However, much of the new year promise goes unfulfilled as resolutions fail and life returns to its usual patterns. This is so because the promise of Jubilee requires the presence of the One upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. Mere human will power and resolve is not enough to bring in the truly new year.
For this reason we ought to be cautious about getting caught up in the annual practice of making bold resolutions destined for failure. We ought to place greater emphasis on the ongoing work of God in our lives, the daily renewal through the Holy Spirit of which our Christmas Day collect speaks (BCP 96). For us, the jubilee is a continual experience, not merely an annual wish. We are continually putting off the “old man” through repentance and confession. And we are continually putting on the “new man” through the grace that God gives us. We are continually being set free from guilt, fear and harmful patterns of behavior. We are continually learning to live and think in new ways.
Moreover, the popular sense of change in the new year tends to focus on things that are temporary, whereas God’s work within us focuses on things that are eternal. For example, people resolve to get thin, exercise more or improve their lives in various ways. There is nothing wrong with these goals. But they are not necessarily connected with holiness or virtue. It is quite possible to become thinner, get in better shape and drift farther away from God at the same time.
The change that accompanies the acceptable year of the Lord is focused on different things. God teaches us to love in new ways. God helps us to acquire new virtues that replace our natural sinful tendencies. God gives us the grace we need to grow in faith, hope and charity. We will understand and experience the proclamation of Jubilee to the extent that we focus on these interior things.
As we think about doing new things in the new year, we ought to consider what the desired change means in terms of our faith. For example, if our new year’s resolutions includes diet, we ought to think in terms of avoiding gluttony and cultivating self control and a healthy enjoyment of the good things God has given us. The focus ought to be on the spiritual dimension of life in the body, not merely on what we look like or what others think of us. God doesn’t really care whether or not we have abs of steel or look like the model in the commercial.
For Christians, any resolve to change in the new year must be connected to a renewed commitment to prayer. God changes us by his grace, which we experience chiefly through prayer. The reason so many resolutions fail is that they are rooted in mere human will and determination and not in God’s grace and power. Christmas teaches us that we become by God’s grace what we are not, and cannot become, by mere nature.
The key to a successful resolution regarding prayer is changing our habits and reordering our time. Some people say that they don’t have time for prayer. That is saying, in essence, that they don’t have time to be a Christian. It is rather like an athlete who says he doesn’t have time to workout, or a musician who says he doesn’t have time to practice playing. In the hustle and pace of our world, devotion to God is always giving way to some other thing that is temporally more urgent, but eternally inconsequential. Changing this pattern is the proper focus of our new year’s resolve and the pathway to a new experience of God’s grace and power.
When we commit ourselves to the life of prayer, the promise of the new year, the promise of jubilee becomes our regular experience. In Christ, we are no longer stuck in the pattern of resolution and failure that characterizes the world. Rather, Christ continually sets us free, binding up our hearts when they are broken, setting us free from our sins, comforting us when we are sorrowful, anointing us with the oil of joy. For in Christ, now is the time of the Jubilee, now is the acceptable year of the Lord.