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It’s 2023, and you haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions yet? What?! Hey, who invented this crazy tradition, anyway?
Well, it turns out that just about every religion and ancient culture has some form of New Year’s resolutions.
In fact, that’s why we call it January – because at the dawn of each Gregorian year the ancient Romans made promises of self-improvement to Janus, their god of beginnings and passages.
That practice probably came originally from the even more ancient Babylonians, who had to promise to their gods at the beginning of each year that they would pay their debts and return the things they’d borrowed throughout the past year.
During the Jewish New Year, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, going through the High Holidays and ending in Yom Kippur, Jews reflect on their failings and wrongdoings in the year that has just passed, and then resolve to seek forgiveness – as well as offering their forgiveness to others.
Catholics and Anglicans have Midnight Mass, designed to help believers resolve to make their new year a more spiritual one than before; while many other Christians have a tradition called watchnight services, when they prepare for the year ahead by reflection, prayer and making resolutions.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, started their watchnight services in 1740, not only to offer an alternative to the typical drunken revelry on New Year’s Eve but to sing hymns, read from scripture, and resolve personally to lead a more spiritual life in the year ahead. Wesley called these watchnight observances “Covenant Renewal Services,” because they were intended to annually revitalize our characters and renew our covenant with the Creator.
In many African-American churches, watchnight first took on its special meaning on New Year’s Eve in 1863, when black American slaves crowded into their churches to await and celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st.
For Muslims and for Baha’is, their calendar’s New Year, which doesn’t happen on January 1st, coincides with the end of the annual fasting period. At that point, believers review their own spiritual development during the past year and commit to abstain from selfish desires, improve their spiritual lives, and serve others.
For Baha’is, the process of making resolutions for self-improvement happens not just annually, but daily. Baha’u’llah wrote: “Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds.”
So this year, in the ongoing spirit of all these cultural and religious traditions, here’s a short set of potential spiritual resolutions we might all want to think about adopting and putting into practice. Let’s agree in advance to avoid the standard New Year’s resolutions – you know the ones – lose weight, travel more, have less stress, spend more time with the family, etc. Instead, these nine suggestions focus on our spiritual lives, offering resolutions for your consideration that we could all stand to make and keep:
- I resolve to start and end each waking day with a prayer of gratitude for my life.
- I resolve to not just tell, but to actively show love to my entire family – the human family.
- I resolve to work hard to rid myself of my prejudices – everyone has some, and we all would be better off without them.
- I resolve to practice a period of meditation every day – it doesn’t have to be long or involved, but it has to be a consistent practice of being alone to reflect on my true thoughts and feelings.
- I resolve to commit to a goal of service to others, by trying to make at least one human life better next year than it was before.
- I resolve to extend myself beyond my normal social and cultural groups this year – to reach out across the racial, class, and age barriers our society imposes on us – and befriend someone who isn’t exactly like me.
- I resolve to do something significant this year toward the goal of peace in the world, even if it’s just a small volunteer commitment in my own community or a new attitude about dealing with conflicts in a more peaceful way.
- I resolve to actively show more kindness, not just to the people around me, but to animals, too.
- Finally, I resolve to see the world as a place where all of my resolutions can make others – and myself – a happier, more radiant, and more spiritually-fulfilled person.
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In this spirit, Baha’u’llah advised all people to:
Set before thine eyes God’s unerring Balance and, as one standing in His Presence, weigh in that Balance thine actions every day, every moment of thy life. Bring thyself to account ere thou art summoned to a reckoning …
If each one of us adopts and acts on even one of these spiritual New Year’s resolutions, we will inevitably create a kinder, more caring life for ourselves and those around us. What better new year could we hope for?