Death and Life in 2016

In these waning days of 2016, I have heard much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the number of beloved persons who passed away in the past year. Indeed, it seems the roll-call of deaths was longer than usual. Or perhaps it was simply the very weight of some of the names — John Glenn, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali. 

I wonder if the sheer number of celebrities in the post-modern age means that every year will feel like 2016 in the future. There will always be loads of people passing whose names we know, simply because we have a larger roster of well-known people. If, as Warhol rightly predicted, everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame, then we’ll have a lot of deaths to mourn.

However, I would like to suggest that focusing on all the deaths of 2016 is precisely the wrong way to end the year. 

What if instead we spend some time meditating on the births of 2016? In the future, what people may remember most about 2016 could be the people who were born this year. That is something that we can’t foresee right now; it takes a bit of imagination, but it might help take the sting out of a year of loss and hopelessness.

Yes, we lost some great artists, national heroes, sparkling personalities. But who knows what persons are now on the planet who will be even greater artists, or heroes, or personalities? Maybe a scientist has just been born who will make a breakthrough in the fight against cancer, or a human rights activist who will make inspire the world to get rid of nuclear weapons. Is it possible that 2016 has given us the next Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Sojourner Truth, or Aung San Suu Kyi, or Pope Francis?

We just celebrated Christmas last week, and in that holiday, we marked the birth of Jesus Christ. It goes without saying that nothing much remarkable happened in Jesus’ life until thirty years after the Bethlehem nativity scene. I wouldn’t be surprised if the people of Israel marked the end of the year of Jesus’ birth with much the same disgust as we’re thinking of the end of 2016. That year had seen more of the same of Roman occupation and oppression, more of King Herod’s cruelty, and the tragic massacre of male babies in the Bethlehem region.

The birth of Jesus was the most significant thing that happened that year, even if nobody really knew for certain until much, much later.

So I can’t help but let my spirit experience a little burst of optimism for the year that was 2016. Who knows what really happened this year? Who can really say that it was a complete and unmitigated disaster? Perhaps someone, or many, have been born who will change the world as we know it, who will guide it toward a more just and peaceful setting.

I wonder if a new world has actually been born in 2016, in the shadow and brittle shell of the old one, which may take years to blossom and unfold, which will take eyes of faith to see and hands of courage to mold. I wonder if God, instead of being remarkably absent in the midst of our world’s tragedies, has been steadfastly midwifing something lovely and new.