The start of the year now offers us new hope, new promise and new life
It’s New Year’s Eve, and you’ve managed to stay awake until midnight. Once I used to look forward to seeing in the New Year, but now it usually finds me already long asleep. But not you! You’re watching on TV all those people standing out there in Times Square, thinking they’re having a great time (ambiguity intentional); you’re waiting for the Ball to drop so you can pop open a bottle of bubbly and celebrate a new year.
5…4…3…2…1…and then . . . nothing happens. Really, nothing. The Ball doesn’t drop – but not because of mechanical failure. The Ball doesn’t drop because there will be no new year, no future, no change, no new beginning. We’re stuck in the old year, and the new one isn’t coming.
Perhaps this, improbable as it may be, sounds like the beginning of a science fiction series. In fact, however, it describes the whole history of the world before the Birth of Christ, a world in which there was no definitive hope for a change, a new beginning. Of course, Israel had been waiting for a Messiah, but in the world outside of the Chosen People, there was no clear sign, no universal hope for a better future or for any future that was different from the present. In fact, in the mythologies of Greece and Rome, the present was far inferior to the past, the Golden Age which would never return. There was only more of the same and, then, death.
And they were right. Without the Birth of Christ, without the radical, world-changing reality of the Incarnation, everything would have just continued on, always getting a little bit worse, even if there might be some momentary advances, because whatever is not lifted up by grace eventually falls down even lower. The natural, without the aid of the supernatural, will sink.
We, of course, largely because of the so-called Enlightenment (which, despite its claims to the contrary, was only possible because of Christianity), have lived all our lives (and the past few centuries) with a secular faith in the twin deities of Progress and Science, so that we take it for granted that there will always be new beginnings, and that things are getting better and better, people are becoming more enlightened and advanced, and so on. This is, of course, utter nonsense.
This does not mean, of course, that there is no progress (which, ultimately, has more to do with Christianity than the world would like to accept: a growing respect for human rights and the end of slavery, for example – where did they come from? Without the Church and Her vision of the dignity of all persons, these would never have occurred) and that science does not offer some brilliant developments among the many terrors it also unleashes. It does mean, however, that, on its own, there is really no future for mankind other than violence and suffering. Fortunately, that is no longer the whole story. The Birth of Christ changed all of that forever. It did not remove all suffering and violence, but it did bring real hope into the world.
And hope finds, even on the secular level, a great symbol in a new year. Today is not only the first day of the New Year, however. It is, symbolically, the first day in the New Creation. January 1st is the Octave Day, the eighth day, of Christmas. The celebration of octaves – 8 days of feasting after a great feast – not only prolongs the party (hooray!) but has a deeper meaning: the Eighth Day is the First Day of the New Week (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the rules of capitalization!).
The Sabbath (Saturday), the seventh day, was the last day of the week, the day of rest; Christ rose on the next day, Sunday, that is, the eighth day – the beginning of the new creation. In the same way, celebrating now the eighth day after the Birth of Christ, we see ourselves entering into that New Year, that Year of Grace, that Year – that age – of the Kingdom inaugurated by His Birth. The first reason we celebrate on January 1st is because it is the Octave of Christmas; the fact that it is the beginning of the civil year (which came first?) is a felicitous fact.