Japan on New Year’s Eve

It’s New Years Eve. I’m sitting here alone at my computer doing a little research into the canons of the ecumenical councils. Yes, of course, canon research is what everybody does on New Year’s Eve (!) Anyhow, I am starting to sense the sobriety of the ancient bishops who met in council and the rigor which they applied to church discipline. That has set me in a somber mood.

It’s a sobering mood that takes me back to my young adulthood when I used to live in Japan. Japan certainly is not an Orthodox country, as we know. It’s nominally Buddhist, but very few observe Buddhist praxis. The Japanese tend to be suspicious of all religions. Many are not aware that their family belongs to a certain temple until a relative dies and the monk from the local temple is called to perform the requisite prayers. But, Buddhism has a long history in Japan and there are countless Buddhist temples. Even for those who do not adhere to Buddhist teachings, the temples are perfectly-constructed, commanding edifices and the temple grounds are spacious and well kept. They offer a welcome respite from the endless industry which is the bustling Japanese city.

Buddhist monk strikes temple bell.

My mind drifts back to New Year’s Eves past. Many years ago, my family and I lived in a small city in the Japan Alps, where we would sit on the matted floor in a small room warming ourselves near the kerosene stove, mindful of the chilly outer darkness. We could hear the deep resonance of the tolling of the temple bell off in the distance. Temple bells are massive things made of bronze and when they are struck head on with a wooden beam they make a thundering sound that can be heard from afar. You seldom hear the sound of the bell except on New Year’s Eve, when the monks strike it slowly and resolutely. 108 times.

One hundred and eight strikes enumerate the number of passions, in Orthodox parlance, by which flesh is encumbered. Each dong of the bell is meant to drive out one passion from the soul, purifying the listener. The last strike is struck just past midnight.

A.D. 2021 has been an awful year when compared to some former years. Not 2020, of course. We need to pause and consider why our sovereign Lord has allowed evil to happen in our nation. Since the Orthodox Fathers teach us that we are all one and interrelated, we should ponder how much we ourselves have been partly to blame for what has befallen us. “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” That line in John Donne’s poem, “No Man is an Island” takes on a deeper meaning when we consider the ramifications of our connection to each other. I look forward to a 2022, not with a blithe hope, but with a sense of penitence and anticipation of spiritual blessings to come. If we draw nigh to God, he will draw nigh to us. (James 4:8)

Author: Lawrence B. Wheeler

B.A., M.Div. Former Anglican priest, convert to Orthodoxy.

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