What does the New Year mean?

Like millions of others, I stayed up until midnight on December 31st last year (!) in order to see with friends the turning of the numbers from 2017 to 2018, and together we shared the familiar rituals: party poppers; shouts of ‘Happy New Year’ (with an unnatural emphasis on the ‘New’); singing a Scottish song none of us really understand whilst awkwardly holding crossed hands; and tuning in to BBC1 to see the fireworks over the London Eye before doing the first maths puzzle of the year, calculating how much they must have cost (and wondering who paid for them).

Many aspects of our counting of time are arbitrary and artificial. As Philip North tweeted ‘Why does New Year have to be so late? Wouldn’t it be much better if it started at, say, 7.30 and then we could all have an early night?’ In response, several people suggested that he could have celebrated the New Year as it arrived in a country further east and had it done with—though an alternative would have been to work with the Jewish day, which starts in the early evening, so strictly speaking it was 2018 from 5pm. But in all this we pass over the fact that our very celebration of when the new year starts is arbitrary. We have reverted to the ancient Roman practice of celebrating in January (thought to be named after the god Janus who looks in both directions, but more probably named after the Latin name for door) but in the UK this is relatively recent. Until 1752 the British Empire (‘and its American colonies’) celebrated New Year on March 25, following the ancient tradition of aligning the new year with the Spring equinox, and our tax year still follows this pattern (moved from the old year end to avoid trying to administer when everyone was on holiday).

But mention of the equinox reminds us that these dates are only partly artificial, since there is a natural rhythm to the day (caused by the earth’s rotation), the month (from the moon) and the year (by dint of earth’s orbit round the sun). I celebrated my birthday when I do since a full schedule of natural seasons has passed since I last celebrated. And even midnight has this natural significance—with the sun setting in the UK around 4 pm, and rising around 8 am, midnight does indeed divide the natural day in two. And this reality then acquires symbolic significance for us, as Peter Leithart points out in his reflection on ‘silence in heaven for half an hour’ in Rev 8.1.

Split time periods suggest that there is a rescue or transition in the middle of the period. A half-hour is an hour that has been split in two by some decisive event at the center. If there is silence in heaven for a half hour rather than a full hour, then something happens to break the silence before the hour passes…

That is the end of the half-hour silence, but there is still more to come before this “hour” is finished. During the second half-hour, the blood of the martyrs is poured out, which eventually causes the city to split and the nations to fall (16:17-21). But during the second half-hour, the saints are safe in heaven, praising God, saved by the very persecution that seemed to wipe out the church. The “hour” is broken in the middle, so that the martyrs don’t suffer the full weight of the “hour” of judgment.

This is, finally, linked to the Hebrew idiom describing midnight, which is “half-night” (chatzi halayelah, Exodus 12:29). Half-night is the moment of transition in Egypt, the time when Israel escapes from the angel of death and leaves Egypt. The judgment continues on Egypt, as the firstborn are killed, but Israel is saved, by the blood of the Lamb and then by their own exit from Egypt. Just so: the martyrs are saved by the blood of the Lamb, and by their exit (in their deaths) from the city that has become Sodom and Egypt.

Perhaps, then, our celebration of New Year at midnight touches on this question of postponed judgement. The old has passed, and the new lies before us, and it is a moment to consider, to judge (in the sense of evaluate) and to re-orient ourselves to a new future.

But this judgement comes at the end of the year, and the orientation at the beginning, which is an essential part of our human experience of time, and one that sets us apart from God as creatures of time. One of my favourite recent films is Arrival which narrates the strange encounter with aliens whose ships simply appear at 12 places around the earth. Like most science fiction, the focus is less on the nature of the aliens and their technology, and more on the dilemma for human existence and what that tells us about our present human condition. Without offering too many spoilers for any readers who have not yet watched it (and you really should), the theme addressed is how we handle the future, and how would we if we knew what it would bring to us. If you have had something of an annus horribilus this year, are you sorry or grateful that, this time last year, you did not know what was coming to you? We are inclined to think that we want to know the future, or that we can anticipate it—but for much of our experience, it is a grace that we can live in the present without anxiety about what is coming, and when we think too much about what might happen then we are robbed of the gift of this moment—and it is a gift, which (as the old saying goes) is why it is called ‘the present’.

Don’t forget to book your place at the the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

A happy accident of our calendars, with Christmas Day coming just 8 days before the new year, gives a symbolic context for this reflection, as Ro Mody pointed out:

Happy Feast Day of the Circumcision of Jesus Christ (and first time gave his blood for a sinful humanity.) Not many people realize that New Year is a Christian Festival. 1st Jan marks the Day that Jesus was presented in the Temple, formally received the name “Jesus,” and was circumcised. Time is divided between BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini; the year of the Lord.) Therefore this is the 2,018th year of the rule of the Christ. a Very Happy New Year. “And when eight days were fulfilled for circumcising him, his name was called Jesus, which was so called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21.)

“Almighty God, who caused your blessed Son to be circumcised and obedient to the law for mankind, grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit so that, our hearts and bodies being dead to all sinful desires, we may obey your holy will in all things through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

How, then, do we go about facing the hope-filled possibility of the year to come? Martin Saunders highlights the problem with the traditional approach of making resolutions, echoing something I have said in previous ‘new year’ blog posts:

In truth, life just isn’t that neat. We don’t put our vices behind us overnight, nor can we suddenly turn over a new leaf. So instead of New Year’s resolutions, we might be better of with an approach to self-improvement that takes a more realistic view of how people change: slowly and with a few setbacks along the way.

So, instead of making grand pronouncements on New Year’s Eve, why not try something else this year? Rather than making resolutions, why not set goals?

I am always a bit puzzled when Christian leaders express such goals in quite humanist terms, longing for peace, or hope, or courage or generosity, even when Jesus is tagged on the end—as if God is simply a means to the end of giving us the things we really want. The whole narrative of Scripture is focussed quite differently, with the goal being God himself. Yes, wonderful things come with that, including an end to grief and suffering, the extraordinary splendour of the golden city, healing, refreshment, and the meeting of all needs. But these are not the goal to which God is the means, but the things that accompany our true goal, to ‘find our rest in thee’.

I think that is why, at the final service of the year we attended at St Mary’s Longfleet in Poole (where we had been for nearly 10 years before relocating to Nottingham) I was particularly moved (even to tears) to sing two songs of worship that simply directed me to God at this moment of the ‘half-night’ of marking the turn of the year. They chime in with Paul’s remarkable goal to be ‘found in him’ (Phil 3.9).

Let the King of my heart Be the mountain where I run
The fountain I drink from Oh-oh, He is my song
Let the King of my heart Be the shadow where I hide
The ransom for my life Oh-oh, He is my song
You are good, good, oh-ohh
Let the King of my heart Be the wind inside my sails
The anchor in the waves Oh-oh, He is my song
Let the King of my heart Be the fire inside my veins
The echo of my days Oh he is my song
God in my living There in my breathing
God in my waking God in my sleeping
God in my resting There in my working
God in my thinking God in my speaking
Be my everything
God in my hoping There in my dreaming
God in my watching God in my waiting
God in my laughing There in my weeping
God in my hurting God in my healing
Christ in me Christ in me
Christ in me the hope of glory
You are everything

May these be the heart of the goals we set in the year to come.

Don’t forget to book your place at the the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

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3 thoughts on “What does the New Year mean?”

  1. Thank you, Ian, and Happy New Year.

    In South London I learnt the tradition of the Watch Night Service and the Wesley Covenenat Prayer which seemed to me beautiful ways of offering the old and the new to God. This year it was just prayers ending with a Eucharist, with extended penitential rite, to bridge the midnight hour and everyone reciting the Covenant Prayer after communion. It was very lovely. Thank you for the worship songs which are new to me too. Keep teh blog posts coming. Blessings on your work.

  2. Ian. Fascinating as always, and Happy New Year. Though it’s only a tangential point in your article, the reason the tax year runs from 6 April to 5 April is indeed linked to the old New Year on 25 March, but isn’t apparently due to people being on holiday. Rather, it’s because of the change in the 18th century from the Julian to Gregorian calendar. The famous ‘lost 11 days’. The government didn’t want to lose tax revenues in that year, and so ‘added’ the 11 days to the end of the financial year in which the change took place. So keeping each tax year at 365 days. (https://www.taxadvisorypartnership.com/tax-compliance/why-does-the-uk-tax-year-start-on-6-april-each-year/ has a particularly good explanation.)


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