What is a New Year?Posted: January 1, 2016
The elderly woman was happy throughout our conversation, but her gaze went out to a point somewhere behind me when, in concluding the appointment, she added, “I sure hope the new year will be better than this one!” She exhaled and left my office with her daughter. It is a common comment and sentiment in December, and I gave it no thought until recently.
Her wishful statement contained within itself a philosophical presupposition, one generally shared by many people. The presupposition is something like this — a new year holds within itself preordained events and circumstances. The added assumption is that a year is an entity, as you or I are entities. As if a year — the 365.25 days it takes the earth to orbit the sun — holds within itself a deterministic power over our lives and world events. The orbit of the earth around the sun has no such power or existence.
Such concepts of time lend to fancies of time travel. I once hoped to have a time travel timeshare condo in sixth century Constantinople. I have thrown such fantasies into the garbage bin. I have come to the conclusion that time is nothing but the measurement of motion within some spacial setting. What is a year? Nothing but the 365.25 days it take the earth to orbit the sun. What is a day? It is nothing but the time it takes for the earth to complete a full revolution around its axis. The day is divided into 24 equal segments called hours. Hours are made up of 60 minutes, and each identical minute lasts 60 identical seconds.
Yet, a year is given meaning. But, I say, only because a year itself is the convenient context of the remembrance of the motions of our lives within that greater planetary motion. In anticipation, the coming year will only bear the memories of our movements in the coming 365.25 revolutions of the earth around its axis. Years are nothing. The motions, or actions, of humans and nature within a year give it its identity. 1967 is known as the “Summer of Love.” 1941 is the known as the year of America’s entrance into World War II. And, if you’re an Orthodox Christian, the years 1204, and 1453 have their meaning because of what happened in them. But those years don’t exist. They never did. The events of those years cannot be re-entered and the events cannot be altered. Years do not exist as if they were documents in a computer’s memory.
“Nothing changes on New Year’s Day,” sings Bono in U2’s “New Year’s Day.” The band gets it: there is no difference between December 31, and January 1. Those 48 hours are the same thing. The days and the years — those motions — occur over the same carpet of earth, over the same constant “stage.”
So is it the “stage” that is important? This is not true. What is important is the actors and actresses on the stage: human beings in motion on the stage of the earth. We act and the year is given its events, meaning and memory. Hence, in a limited way, we form the “future.”
The Future. It is not pre-filled, or pre-formed, or predetermined. It is made, or assembled movement by movement, action by action. No one can foretell it by the reading of a palm, tea leaves, or cards; and the stars do not determine it. The future is only that surface area of the stage upon which our next motions and actions will be played out amidst the actions and movements of others. Our actions and movements in the present moment begin to set what unfolds in the upcoming acts.
Is this not arrogant? Is it not presumptive? Does this not negate God’s actions on that part of the stage to be moved upon? No. Now, let me explain.
Given — there is a God, and per the Psalmist: “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his Kingdom rules over all” (LXX Psalm 102: 19). God is omnipotent, omniscient, and ever present. This fact is a given, and is inviolate. Yet there is another inviolate truth, unalterable fact: humans have free will. Free will is a gift of God, and is part of imaging God before creation. In some mysterious, magnificent way God is, of course, free to act, and humans are free to act. We have a paradox.
Let me continue by stating that only the present exists. The past is not found behind us, but underneath our feet (as any archeologist will tell us). The “future” is simply the present moment to which we have not yet moved. Again, we, in part, form the future. I do not want to simplify the matter, but the actions of the moment send tendrils out before us. If the actions are foolish, ill-willed, and simply terrible, then the “future” will likely hold corresponding consequences. However, if we act in wisdom, goodness, and according to faith, those tendrils will entwine, likely, with their correspondent consequences. I am not naive, I’ve been around the block a few times. Good things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good people. And yes, the bumper sticker sums it up nicely, “____ happens.” For there are several billion actors and actresses doing their own things, and nature also has a staring role.
But, it’s exactly when “____ happens” that our actions can take on impressive, formative power. It is not the circumstances that matter; it is our actions in the midst of the circumstances than count. St. Paul informs us:
Do not repay evil for evil, but always pursue the good, both for one another, and for all. Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all things, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus…test all things; hold fast to the good; avoid every appearance of evil” (1Thes 5: 15 — 22).
With such a holy perspective, circumstances, encounters, and the “____ that happens” can be transformed, sending forth healthy, whole, and holy tendrils ahead of us — tendrils that God, in his omnipotence, can pull toward himself and toward the good. Further, such a holy, eucharistic perspective, and consequent actions transform us. The holiness, and wholeness of God is formed more completely in us. Thus, we are capable of more and more holy, eucharistic actions in all the circumstances we encounter in this huge, expansive reality called the present.
In the next 365.25 revolutions of the earth around its axis as it makes its way again around the sun, act eucharistically in Christ and by the Holy Spirit; and may God bless you in the ever-present now.