The new year is an opportunity to ask more deeply where we wish to go, and use the challenges of COVID-19 to help us see what matters most deeply, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ. 

New Year’s Day is usually a bit like a cheap easter egg. It has a shiny outside but is pretty thin inside. This year will be no exception. But for most of us, COVID-19 has made a difference. We have made our plans for the new year with ‘ifs’ attached. We have become used to crises that cause lockdowns and wreck all our best plans. We do not come to the new year with assurance that things will be as they were before but with a question mark.

The question, too, may lead us to ask more deeply where we wish to go as persons and as a society. During the crisis we had to recognise that we relied on other people to live and to flourish. We had to sacrifice our own desires for freedom to travel where we wanted and to gather with people whenever we wanted in order to protect the health of those who were vulnerable. For many Australians, COVID-19 brought challenging experiences of learning and teaching at home, working from home, long periods of unemployment and of uncertainty. These experiences have inevitably made it difficult to plan for the long term and perhaps left us reluctant to return to the previous ways in which we balanced our commitments to work and home. We have asked ourselves what we want most deeply and what matters to us.

This new year is also overshadowed by large events, both present and future. We have seen the climate summit in Glasgow. However we might rate its effectiveness, we have surely heard its stark warning about the consequence for our children of not addressing seriously climate change as a priority. We live also in the shadow of a coming federal election that will inevitably raise questions about how seriously we take climate change, inequality and the other deep challenges that we face in Australia. Our experience of COVID-19 may make us demand seriousness and honesty of our political leaders as they compete for votes. It may also make us impatient with any empty words that lack these qualities.

In the different cultures and religions that have enriched Australian life people emphasise different aspects of new year. It used to be a time to make good resolutions. Many of us give less attention to this today after noticing how many of our good intentions died a week into the new year. At Jesuit Social Services, however, the new year refreshes our hopes. Particularly our hope for the people whom we accompany. That next year children will not have to fear being treated as criminals. That governments may invest heavily to support people in regions marked by disadvantage. That all homes may be free from violence and fear. To have hopes is the first step towards working to make them come true.

In some cultures the new year is associated with water, where the faults and grime of the old year are washed away and a better life washed in. Water, too, can be used in celebration. People throw water on friends and strangers, washing away social boundaries and the ordinary rituals of deference that go with them. The beginning of the new year reminds us of our equality when we come into the world and which remains in the eyes of God.

In Australia we have struggled to find ways of celebrating the new year that bring out its deeper meaning. That may be so because in Christian societies it has been obscured by the celebrations of Christmas. New year is a time for winding down, not for gearing up to begin the new year. Still, staying up till midnight drinking, and then shouting, lighting fireworks, and tooting horns can seem to lack a bit of seriousness. However we spend New Year’s Day, we might find it helpful to reflect back on the past year and to ask ourselves what we want of ourselves during the coming year.