January 2022 Letter from Archbishop Michael Jackson
“Sometimes it is possible to change and to alter the ways in which we do things. Sometimes we can come or go by another route.”
The early days of January seem long drawn out and very exposed. If the weather is warm, it is unseasonal; if the weather is cold, it is predictable. So goes ‘the weather.’ And the weather is frequently a focus of conversation across Ireland and elsewhere, as Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot has immortalized for an international readership. But it is more than this – it is a point of reference for our wellbeing and for how we expect to face the present. And facing the present, to my mind, is the key to all of this month of January and beyond, not least in current times, as 2022 plots its course and takes its toll on us. We are understandably busy, coping with everything that could not quite resolve itself in 2021. What is more, we are becoming busy with what will inevitably offer itself to us as a fresh challenge, whether opportunity or obstacle, in 2022. The weather is not always our friend. But it is one of many things that we cannot alter and we need to deal with it, we need to live with it. And so, the weather itself carries a meaning beyond what it clearly and visibly does as ‘the weather.’
Another feature of the month of January, through the Christian Season of The Epiphany, is wisdom. Epiphany begins with The Three Wise arriving from The East. Through their presence and their gifts, they share their wisdom from the world beyond with The Christ. It is a pivotal moment of intersection and of interaction. Until their arrival, the birth of The Infant Jesus is very much a local matter, in Bethlehem with local actors in the persons of local innkeeper, local farmers and, of course, the birth of a local child. The Wise of The East move the story of the birth of Jesus into a very different space: the wisdom of the world comes to meet the Wisdom of God Incarnate. And they introduce God’s Son to those of a World Faith other than his own. All worlds are different.
As we read The Scriptures during this Season of Epiphany, wisdom comes to meet us in a range of different ways, all of them practical. I encourage us, in our own time and in our own world, to make this space and to let this happen. We read of Samuel listening; and of Eli realizing that Samuel, while he feels a loyalty to him, needs to listen to God instead of him, whatever the outcome and repercussions for Eli and his family at the Shrine at Shiloh. Wisdom requires hard choices to be made. Decisions need to happen. We read of a range of spiritual gifts abounding in the members of the church in Corinth, but the question is: What to do with them? Discernment as the voice of wisdom is the key method of interpreting the validity and the use of such gifts. These gifts are not self–explanatory. Once again, wisdom requires us to rise above either the predictable or the popular – or both. However bleak, however dark, however unending it seems, we ourselves can seize this month as a month of wisdom, when we make good decisions for others and for ourselves. While faith is indeed in the things unseen, as St Paul also tells us, we in fact have only the present to see
and to experience. But the present is sufficient. The present is well worth grappling with. And even this is not an easy ask when so many of us are tired and frightened and when the happiness that rings through a phrase such as Happy New Year does not easily connect with our own mood of anxiety and fear.
Where, we might ask, are we to look for inspiration in this present time? If successive Lockdowns have taught us that delay is fatal, they have also taught us that impatience is counterproductive. And after two years of the coronavirus, the lockdown is now in the mind of many of us. Time after time, we have heard people rightly speak of mental wellbeing issues and the pandemic and the present is the time when these are being lived out. Delay and impatience are the sunrise and the sunset between which we live our lives as day follows day. We have also learned that for matters of personal and individual wellbeing, there is need to keep things simple and to simplify them even further as needs be and as circumstances dictate. Most people can cope with less than they used to be able to and we need to be sensitive to their needs. We have learned to appreciate the simple gestures of kindness and recognition of one another for which in all probability we had little time before. We are now nudging towards year three of a new world. And the sort of throwaway line: But the omicron variant is nothing like as severe as the delta variant and, of course, the virus is coming to the end of its life … is no help to anyone suffering either in hospital or at home and experiencing the havoc of self– isolation.
What can we alter? Where does change begin? While in the corporate world there is always much talk of change management, I suggest that for us the change we need to manage in the immediate present comes from self–encouragement. Heading into the third year of lockdown, even if it has a small rather than a capital l at this stage, I am suggesting self–encouragement as the way for us to address the present. It can definitely involve the encouragement of other people but it now needs to be focused on self–care as never before. If we cast our minds back to the days when we were somewhat more accustomed to air travel, the golden rule before take–off ran something like this: In the case of an emergency, please put on your own mask first before helping anyone else … Grounded as we now are, this advice remains sensible and good for our present circumstances.
I want to thank everyone who keeps the wheels of all parts of our societies turning, both those who deliver and those who participate in all essential services. The strain is immense, and the tiredness is significant, so my thanks and the thanks of everyone are due to you all. Everyone is making a supreme effort and I want to offer you the encouragement of knowing that your contribution is vital and also greatly appreciated. Public service goes hand in hand with public compliance. Your commitment and graciousness far and away beyond the call of conventional duty needs to be honoured for its continuity and for its quality. We are all deeply in your debt.
I take you back to the exotic visitors from The East to the manger in Bethlehem. They had an encounter with King Herod in Jerusalem and did not like what they found. So, one of the ways in which they expressed their wisdom is described by St Matthew as follows: Then they returned to their own country by another route … (St Matthew 2.12). Sometimes it is possible to change and to alter the ways in which we do things. Sometimes we can come or go by another route. Our back is not completely against the wall. And for us this is a moment and a time of hope as well as of encouragement.
With good wishes for the New Year 2022