Whenever I preach on New Year’s Eve, I often like to quote the late comedian George Burns, who once wrote in The New York Times: “Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I always looked forward to New Year’s mainly because it was the only thing we could afford that was really new.” Burns was a lifelong, professional comedian; so that was his laugh line. But, then, he added: “And we always believed that things were going to get better during the New Year.”
The Roman god Janus, for whom the first month of the year is named, was the god of beginnings and endings, of doors and passageways, of past and future. Hence, he was typically portrayed with two faces – one looking back at the past, the other ahead to the future. In a sense, that is what we all do every year at this time. We look back at the past year, with some mixture of gratitude and regret about where we have been so far, while we likewise look ahead at where we may be going in whatever time may yet be left, sometimes with increasing worry but with worry mixed with hope. A new year, as Burns’ comical comment reminds us, is, by definition, something new, a gift that offers an opportunity for hope.
Historically, different peoples and cultures have marked the passing of the year on many different dates and with many different customs. Our preoccupation with the computing of time, the movements of sun and moon, the changing of seasons, and the repetitive cycle of years, however, has been universal. Whether celebrated in spring, summer, autumn, or (as we do) in the dead of winter, the end of an old year and the start of a new one has universally been seen as a special moment in time, when past and future meet. Before anyone ever exchanged Christmas presents, people were giving each other New Year’s gifts. The Chinese even had New Year’s greeting cards – over a thousand years ago.
Our apparently timeless preoccupation with time may be one of our most distinctly human traits, since one of the earliest things that human beings became aware was probably our own mortality – the fact that we live and die in a set period of time. Time is precious – precisely perhaps because we have just a limited amount of it.
Of course, most of our time is what we might call “Ordinary time” – the day-to-day routine of personal life – of home, family, work – punctuated by those special high or low moments, most of which happen when they happen, not particularly according to any calendar. Yet the calendar is always there, and never more obviously than today, when the simple act of changing the date makes us stop and wonder what it all means.
If history has taught us anything, of course, it has taught us the fragility of so many of the things we are tempted to pin our hopes on. For all our holiday cheer, many of us may be marking the end of a very difficult and challenging 2023 by looking ahead to Election Year 2024 with more than a little anxiety. Everywhere, people are beginning the new year with worries and anxieties amid far-away wars and close-to-home violence and all the perennial problems of home, family, and work. There’s a reason, after all, why we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
But, if our distress and anxiety as we look ahead to the new year are real enough, so too must be our hope, the hope we all share as Church, the hope we have been proclaiming this Christmas season, and on which we must all rely in all things and at all times, all the year round: the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our hope is founded and focused on Jesus Christ, whose birth 2000+ years ago is the very basis for our calendar. God’s showing up in the world in Jesus – the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, born into a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time in human history as a light of revelation to the Gentiles, has realigned all of time and given all of history a new and more hope-filled meaning, giving us a hope for the future we would never otherwise have had.
Like Simeon and Anna in today’s gospel [Luke 2:22-240], the world is old and has seen its share of woe. But they were awaiting the consolation of Israel, and they recognized that consolation when he came to them, as we must recognize him when he comes to us, revealing the thoughts of our hearts, and even more importantly God’s heart.
Time, the passing of the year reminds us, has always been very precious – precisely, I suppose, because we have only such a limited supply of it. By becoming part of our time, however, God has turned our limited time on earth into a time of unlimited opportunity. So today he invites us to look ahead to the new year and to enter it not in fear or anxiety, but with the hope that counts as one of God’s greatest Christmas gifts to us.
Happy New Year!
Homily for New Year’s Eve (Feast of the Holy Family), Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, December 31, 2023.
Photo: The Times Square Ball’s 2024 Sign Arrives in Times Square. Courtesy of the Times Square Alliance.