Throughout the country, students and teachers are wrapping up old semesters and beginning new ones, and it has become something of a cliché in teaching circles to remind students that everybody has a perfect score at the start of the new semester. As a high school teacher, I live in a world that is dominated by the constant ebb and flow of quizzes, tests, homework assignments and essay prompts.
It’s remarkable to look at my grade book at the start of a new semester and see empty pages next to a full list of student names. I’ve spent the better part of the last six months filling in those pages: reminding my students that they can improve their reading quiz scores if they actually do the reading, and that, yes, those missing assignments do have an affect your grade.
For their efforts, students are rewarded with a single letter that is supposed to encapsulate everything that they have achieved and learned (or not) within the walls of my classroom. It’s an unfortunate reality that, for many of my students, that letter plays a far too significant role in determining their own personal identity and self-worth. And yet, here we stand: it’s the beginning of a new semester, and I don’t have a single grade in my ledger. There’s something incredibly liberating about it, and I’d imagine that many of my students feel the same way. Together, we step into a new semester full of opportunity and fraught with challenges. In so doing, we are unencumbered by our own shortcomings and failures in the past. The slate is, quite literally, wiped clean.
It seems appropriate to reflect on the nature of our Christian baptism during the month of January, and not just for the obvious reason that January 12th is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Like my students at the start of a new semester, we are invited to set aside our past and embrace the new life offered to us through the grace of Christ in our baptism. It reminds us that the opportunity to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14) is not a once-in-a-lifetime chance at graced beginnings, but an unceasing invitation to conversion. Armed with this knowledge, our baptism offers us an ongoing opportunity to hit reset and let go of the past. When measured against the infinite grace and mercy of God, our failures have the power to determine our identity only when we allow them to do so.
You might not be a student anymore, but January is traditionally a time of fresh beginnings. As you’re making those resolutions to lose weight, or save a bit of extra cash, perhaps another promise emerges as a possibility: to bring this spirit of forgiveness and new beginnings into our everyday lives.