What does the turn of the New Year teach us?

I first posted this a year ago, and was intrigued to re-read it. The particular reason is that, as I wrote, I had just experienced four months with a pulled hamstring, finding walking, sitting or driving very painful, and requiring that I took a cocktail of painkillers. I was facing a biopsy under general anaesthetic for suspected prostate cancer. My father-in-law, who had been living with us, had died in the summer, and we spent much of the autumn arranging his funeral and service of thanksgiving. It had been a very demanding year—though the one that followed has been very different! It was interesting to be challenged to reflect on the meaning of ‘the new year’ from that position. I hope you find it helpful.

Like millions of others, I stayed up to ‘see in’ the New Year, which for us included watching on TV £1.5m going up in smoke (with some spectacular lights) on the River Thames, and the obligatory replay of the last ten minutes of ‘When Harry met Sally’. In some ways, seeing in the New Year is a curious ritual, not least because it is uneventful. I was tickled by the headline on the radio news during Saturday ‘New Zealand is amongst the first countries to see in the New Year’, as if that was anything surprising. We might as well have been told ‘Countries exist on the other side of the world—shock!’

But on reflection, the fact that we celebrate the New Year does in fact tell us important things about ourselves and the world we live in, and we would do well to attend to them.

First, the event tell us that we are not our own—we are not fully autonomous individuals, but depend on external realities.

Many aspects of our counting of time are arbitrary and artificial. Why do we wait up until midnight? Why not count the New Year as starting earlier in the evening—or celebrate it with countries further east? An alternative would have been to work with the Jewish day, which starts in the early evening, so strictly speaking it was New Year from 5 pm. (Do orthodoxy Jews actually celebrate the new calendar early?) 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. (It shifted to the current 6th April because the Government did not want to lose 11 days of tax when we moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar!)

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). The importance of our circadian rhythms is now being recognised as vital to our health and well-being; the disruption of these natural patterns by technology, particularly the blue light of mobile phones and tablets, causes harm, and we need to connect more with these given, external patterns. Getting up early and exposing yourself to natural light outside has been shown to improve your mood, help you sleep better, and even reduce the risk of heart disease.

I celebrate my birthday when I do since a full schedule of natural seasons has passed since I last celebrated—and that matters, not least because the seasons themselves model for us the seasons of our lives. Having turned 60 in 2022, I wonder if I am now entering the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness‘ (in the words of John Keats); all the energy of spring, the hard work of planting and tending, gives way to harvesting what can sometimes feel as too great an abundance of fruit. There is something of effortless to it, compared with the striving of earlier years; when you are older you have had the time to put in your ‘10,000 hours‘ in many areas of life, which is perhaps why those in their 60s and 70s appear to be the most satisfied, contented and happiest.

Secondly, we have a natural orientation to time as past and future. Despite seeming arbitrary, midnight shared the natural significance that we noticed above; 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 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 in 2022, 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’.

This points to our third reality: we are creatures of failure and hope. Why do we make ‘New Year’s resolutions?’ There must be two elements to this: first, we realise that we do not live as we should, we might, or we could; and, secondly, we believe there is the possibility of change. Ironically, the first of these is confirmed not long into January as the second of these is frustrated.

Part of the reason is that this is not the best time of year to change. Most people have not had a long break in which to reflect on their lives, unlike in the summer; and it is cold and dark so we are not feeling energised. My experience in parish ministry is that September, not January, is the time when people make decisions to do things differently, and this was the time of the year when we saw the most growth in church attendance.

I have also previously noted that we mostly do not change by making abrupt resolutions that rely on will power alone. It is possible to make some changes by simple decision—for example, your body takes two to three weeks to adjust to basic physiological changes, so if you want to give up taking sugar in your coffee you can simply do this for a couple of weeks, and by that time you will have got used to the new taste of sugarless coffee. But we have a finite amount of will power, and it gets quickly exhausted! In the TV programme The Truth about Getting Fit, Michael Mosley did a fabulous experiment in which participants had to fill in a form with or without a plate of chocolate biscuits in front of them which they were not allowed to touch. Those who had had to exercise will power by resisting the temptation then performed worse on a simple ‘wall sit’ exercise—because they had already used up some of their will power!

We actually make effective changes by changing our goals, rather than our actions. Just as someone learning to cycle needs to focus on the place they are heading, rather than looking down at handlebars and pedals, so we will change when we focus on longer-term goals rather than short-term changes. It is not individual actions that will bring change so much as a reorientation of our natural habits, and if these can play to our strengths and personality, rather than fighting against them, then they are more likely to work.

But there is an important qualification to this: we need to focus both on longer-term vision and on the immediate small steps needed to realise that vision in the longer term. This is one version of ‘Stockdale’s Paradox‘, named after James Stockdale’s description of his time as a prisoner of war; those who survived the terrible conditions were the ones who both held on to the long term hope of eventual liberation, but also faced up to what was needed day to day to survive. (The van Tulleken brothers explore this here in relation to personal change in their BBC series ‘A Through Examination’, starting at 22.48). Being optimistic alone is not enough; we also need to be realists about what that future vision demands of us day by day.

My fourth and final observation is that we are blessed in our calendar by having New Year following on from Christmas. New Year’s Day is actually a Christian festival—the circumcision of Jesus on the eighth day (counted inclusively). It marks the moment where Jesus was formally received in the temple, took on the covenant sign of his people Israel, and was officially named.

On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived (Luke 2.21).

It thus sealed the completion of the promise and fulfilment of the messages to Zechariah and Mary, and the start of the process of the redemption of God’s people, a redemption that would reach to the ends of the earth. It began with God himself stepping into this material world, taking on our physical material nature, dealing with our sin and failure through the cross and resurrection, and pouring his love into our hearts, giving us hope for the future.

I am not what I ought to be! Ah! how imperfect and deficient!—I am not what I wish to be! I ‘abhor what is evil,’ and I would ‘cleave to what is good!’—I am not what I hope to be! Soon, soon, I shall put off mortality: and with mortality all sin and imperfection! Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was—a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the Apostle, and acknowledge; By the grace of God, I am what I am! (John Newton).

So the questions facing us at this New Year, imperfect as it is as a time for making radical change, are:

  1. What pattern of life is God calling me to in this coming year?
  2. How does the the forgiveness of my sin, failure, and imperfection in Jesus liberate and empower me?
  3. What is God doing by the power of his Spirit in forming me in new life-giving habits?
  4. How does all this reconcile me to the natural patterns that are God’s gift to me in nature?

These questions bring me back to one of my favourite prayer-poems at this time of the year. It is usually known under the title ‘The Gate of the Year’, and is by Minnie Louise Haskins, a poet and academic working in the field of sociology. Though first published in 1908, it was made famous when George VI read it in his Christmas broadcast in 1939—a prophetic word for a country just embarking on a global conflict. I remember seeing it cast in iron at the chapel in Windsor Castle, where George VI is buried.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

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11 thoughts on “What does the turn of the New Year teach us?”

  1. Thank you for an informative, interesting and thought provoking question.

    We live in a world where change is necessary, and inevitable. If fail to change, allow God to work change in us, we stagnate and we do not grow. We become luke warm, like the church in Laodecia, and fail to delight God’s heart, bring Him the glory and honour that is His due.

    We see, of course, the evidence for change all around us, in the order that God has set in His creation. Night follows day, and the seasons follow each in their order. Where would we be if we did not have night’s rest after the tumult of the day. Can we imagine living in constant winter without the warmth of summer, the progression to the richness, and bounty of harvest, and of autumn.

    I wonder if the important question is not when, or even how we should celebrate New Year but, rather, am I willing to allow God to work change in my life that His name might be glorified?

  2. Yes, interesting. The rhythm of the Old Testament Jewish calendar gave opportunity to reflect—including reflecting on God’s providences (e.g., Passover).

    Although the Anglican tradition preserves something of this it is largely lost in my experience in nonconformism.

  3. Some of us are happy social creatures whose consciousness is fully absorbed with the ups and downs of family, friends and work colleagues; there’s much to commend that approach to life. Others of us cannot escape searching out and pondering the global trends and machinations which precede, sometimes by decades, the real life changes ordinary people will inescapably experience at some unknown point in the future. Happy are those who are certain they can detect the dawn of a new golden age; furrowed of brow are those who foresee trouble ahead!

    The coming to fruition, at the same point in time, of a deadly, atheistic ideology (Cultural Marxism) and the power of absolute control over people’s lives through exponential advances in digital technology appears both to enable and explain what can only be described as the plainly Fascistic intentions of those who now wield unprecedented global influence and control. National leaders are looking to global authorities for direction rather than the sovereign authority of their own people: the requirement for democratic integrity within nations is being ignored. A few years ago such talk would have been dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’; now these things are happening in plain sight, albeit not much elucidated by the mainstream media which far too many people still trust as offering an objective narrative. To speak of these things, not least on New Year’s Day, still regularly invites both ridicule and demands that you be silent, but I think less so as more people join up the dots of what can no longer be denied with any credibility.

    As Ian reminds us, our resolutions regularly fade into nothing, perhaps indeed because this time of the year is when our energy is at a low ebb. But I would urge Christians in particular to wise up, speak up, and pray about where things now are, and where they are heading in our Western nations. Just as our gospel witness involves Christian social action (see the previous article on this site), does it not also involve prophetic warnings which point to complacency, indifference and judgement for allowing evil to go unchallenged?

    I suspect there’s a hurdle to surmount when facing unwelcome realities about ourselves and our futures – that has certainly been true for me – but soon enough you will find intelligent, Godly and fearless people are already out there engaged in a battle for truth and freedom. Most importantly, God is there, not as a politician but as the sovereign Lord over everything. It’s his world, and he is a jealous God: people who intend to take his sovereignty from him, whatever their reason, are his enemies. Christians, as God’s agents, need to be in this fight; I believe it’s a necessary part of our witness for the gospel which we cannot avoid.

    Our job is not to guarantee golden times if we put up a good enough fight; such things are in God’s hands alone. But we can resolve to pray for wisdom and to be faithful when what we come to understand requires of us that we do not remain silent.

  4. Thank you Ian and happy new year to you – looking forward to this year’s YouTube lectionary discussions now that I have PTO!

    Wikipedia suggests 2 sources of inspiration for George VI’s choice of ‘The Gate of the Year’ for the 1939 Christmas broadcast:

    “The poem may have been brought to his attention by his wife, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Consort).

    “The book ‘The Servant Queen and the King She Serves’ published for Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, its foreword being by that monarch, says that it was the young Princess Elizabeth herself, aged 13, who handed the poem to her father” (the latter seems the more likely, given that QEII personally endorsed that book).

  5. What a vista you set before us Paul, so much content to chew on. May God bless you with fresh oil and delight you from fresh springs this new year. Thankyou Geoff for the link to practicalholiness.com
    From the same site I heartily recommend: –
    *Anticipation in the Christian Life: Living Coram Deo – Practical Holiness. *
    Yes, it is recommended that Corum Dio and Corum Mundo be combined [The Two Kinds of Righteousness as a Normative Framework for the Description, Interpretation, and Healing of Shame by Barson Lahivelo Mahafaly]
    Some ideas of which, you affirm.
    Reading of RC concepts of Corum Deo does not really define what Holiness is other than imitating Jesus, trying to live like Jesus. Really a case of Gal 3:3.
    As with Jewish thinking, Remembering and forgetting not and the forward looking for Messiah
    Is the equivalent of “We thank Him for all that is passed and trust Him for all that is to come”.

    Being led of the Spirit is a wonderful adventure of being led into all the fulness and enjoyment of God.
    “The best is yet to be”. .. Wesley.

    Missionally and pastorally the case is much more difficult at times
    I was once engaged as a young man in door-to-door work in the slum areas of Birmingham with a more senior lady.
    We knocked on a door which, it transpired, was a brothel. There we met an old, probably too old lady worker.
    Hanging on her wall was a photo of a clergy man [her father perhaps] Having exerted our abilities to proclaim the Gospel she was in great tears, no doubt remorseful or partially repentant.no theological or psychological effort prevailed.
    It seemed to me that she could not forgive herself for her past. My senior hurriedly decided that we should give up on a lost cause.
    For my maturer self I would reckon that here was a stronghold to pull down, an iron yolk in need of breaking, a prison door to be opened. And a realisation that “This kind goeth not forth but by much prayer and fasting”.
    I often wonder if she might be on of the Harlots entering the kingdom before the self-righteous, amen.
    Philippians3:13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
    3:14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
    3:15 Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.

  6. I think when one gets into your 60’s you begin to realise more forcefully (all things being equal), that there are more years behind you than ahead of you. For me, this has brought about a much deeper introspection as to what I actually believe through the many decades I have been a christian in many different settings, and I have noticed a change in my attitude to the eternal.

    I find I think much more about Jesus and who he is and seek a much closer awareness of his reality. As each year passes I find my thoughts becoming more detached from this world and focusing on the next. I ask myself after all these years do I really believe all this? The answer is yes I do, but I recognize the need to fellowship more with Jesus in closeness of spirit so that when my time approaches then my passage through death becomes as natural and as real as my passage through life is now.

    God is present at our birth and He is there at our end. Jesus has conquered the ancient fear of death. In this, find I gain most encouragement from the book of Revelation.

    • I dont think the experience of death, at least the time leading up to actual brain death, is any different for the Christian than anyone else. It’s not natural which is why people rightly want to avoid it.

      • ‘My Days Are Few, O Fail Not,
        With Thine Immortal Power,
        To Hold Me That I Quail Not
        In Death’s Most Fearful Hour:
        That I May Fight Befriended,
        And See In My Last Strife
        To Me Thine Arms Extended
        Upon The Cross Of Life’

        Last verse of ‘O sacred Head Sore Wounded’


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