Auld Lang Syne
Colossians 1: 15-20
First Sunday after Christmas/ 29th December 2002
Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
On Tuesday night, millions of party-goers will usher in 2003 singing that old traditional song, “Auld Lang Syne.” Now, I’m not the gambling sort of person, but I’m willing to wager that most people don’t know either what they’re singing or even why. I was amazed to hear Today show’s, Katie Couric, confess on Thursday morning that she didn’t know what the song was about and didn’t even know what language it was. In fact, no one on the set knew anything about the song! Katie thought it might have been a Welsh song. But as good Presbyterians, we know it’s not Welsh, but Scots:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o’kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
The text, as you probably know, is from the Scots Presbyterian poet, Robert Burns, who lived between 1759 and 1796. In a time of heightened Scottish nationalism in the face of England’s attempt to squelch the Jacobite cause, that tried to put Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne of the United Kingdom, Burns wrote most of his poetry in what is known as Broad Scots or simply Scots. It sounds and looks like English, but it isn’t.
The poem was often used at the end of special social occasions and eventually became associated with New Year’s Eve and is used the same way today in Scotland. There are five other stanzas in the poem, all of them extremely reflective in nature. This is not a happy poem. It is touch with sorrow, sadness, and even grief. Listen to the opening question - should auld, that is old acquaintances be forgot and never brought to mind? Should we forget the people we’ve met? Should anything or anyone be forgotten? How much should be forgotten and how much should be remembered? “Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ And auld lang syne?” That is, should we forget about old times, old friends, memories of the past? That’s what auld lang syne means – old times, old friends, memories of the past. Should we say good-bye to the past on New Year’s and never bring it to mind?
These are deep, philosophical questions that most of us don’t take the time to consider throughout the year as much as we should, let alone at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve. And yet, that’s what we sing.
If you think about it, New Year’s is a very existential holiday. It marks a time of birth, the start of a new year and the promises of renewal with potentially life-changing resolutions. But it also marks our movement through space-time in which we are saying good-bye to the past year, to all those experiences and people. Conscious of the new, we are equally conscious of the past and the fact that as human beings we are creatures of time, involved in the flow from past to present to future. We will never have this time back again. It is gone.
For many, this awareness is depressing. I have a friend who is a real extrovert and socialite, who loves parties and entertaining (in fact, I’ll see her on Thursday in St. Andrews), but who considers New Year’s Eve one of the most depressing times of the year. There’s usually a party at her home, but if she had her way she would rather get into bed early and sleep her way into the new year.
The English composer, Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), perhaps my favorite composer, wrote a nocturne that he described as New Year’s music. It isn’t joyous or uplifting, but mournful and reflective, expressing his own personal feeling about the holiday. Finzi was inspired by the essayist Charles Lamb (1775-1834) who reflected upon the start of the new year. He wrote, “No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.” With the pealing of the bells at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, Lamb writes, “I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth, all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected in that regretted time.” This same type of feelings are found in Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.”
Why this melancholic fascination with the past for the Scots? Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), another Scot, suggests that this “is the mark of the Scot of all classes: that he stands in an attitude towards the past unthinkable to Englishmen, and remembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation.” This same thought is expressed by Burns, should we forget the past? The answer is, No. We will remember. “We’ll tak a cup o’kindness for auld lang syne!” We’ll drink in honor of the old times, we’ll remember and say thanks!
Now what does all of this have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Good question. The reason why I’ve gone on about this famous poem is to highlight the all-embracing character of it. Burns is not calling us to remember only the good times, but all the times, “the good and the bad,” as Stevenson put it. Not only will we remember, but we’ll raise our glasses in respect and give thanks. There’s a lot of grace in this approach to life, as I see it, because it affirms that in the big scheme of things, everything finds meaning and purpose within something larger than itself. There is an all-embracing, all-affirming quality to this poem that is reflective of the text from Colossians.
In this famous hymn, Paul paints a picture of Christ who is Lord over all time and space, who was before all thing and through whom all things were created, through him and for him. “He was before all things,” – and this is key – “in him all things hold together”(v.17). I take this literally, meaning everything in the world and in our lives are held together in Christ. The past, the present, and the future are all held together in him. All the people we have met and to whom we have said good-bye are held close to us in the wide embrace of Christ. Even place we love, but for whatever reason cannot remain there are made close, never completely lost. It is as if nothing is completely lost forever. It is as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) put it, “One must live in oneself and think of the whole of life, of all its millions of possibilities, expanses, and futures, in the face of which there is nothing past or lost.” And as Christians we know keep within the sinews of existence we are being supported by God’s grace. And because of this we too can embrace life – all of it, the good and the bad – because all of it is being held together in him.
The implications of this believe is that we are truly free to enter into the new year with greater faith and assurance, because we now all is in God’s hands. We need to know this, especially as war approaches on the horizon. The Christian life offers freedom to face even difficult times. This freedom allows us to live! We are free to live more fully and do the things we really want to do and feel led by God to do, but for whatever reasons have been reluctant because of fear or a memory of failure in the past that stands in our way. We are free to experience the new changes the year will bring as the means by which God is intent on renewing God’s people, giving strength to the faint, and strength to the powerless.
Knowing that you are free, maybe we can answer these questions more fully as we enter the new year:
What do you really want to do? Where is your passion? What are you passionate about?
What is holding you back from your passion?
What is God calling you to be and to do?
What do you need in order to accomplish this?
“For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:2). In this freedom, we can be free to be disciples of Jesus Christ, committed to the work of the gospel, offering forgiveness and healing and justice to the people of this work in the name of Christ. We can stand firmly on the promises of God and know the future is in God’s hands. Then we will have that assurance that Julian of Norwich (died c. 1443) came to know, writing in the fourteenth century, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Charles Lamb, “New Year’s Eve,” in Essays of Elia (London Magazine, 1820-1825).