Why Catholics Celebrate the New Year

We are beginning the Year of the Lord 2016. The marking of the dawn of a new year is no secular holiday, because time and history have been drawn into the coming of God into the world. We keep track of our time as either BC (Before Christ) or AD (Anno Domini) to demonstrate that Christ is the center of history, the one through whom we judge all that came before and is going to come.

In the ancient world, the spring equinox marked the beginning of a new year. Spring serving as this turning point makes natural sense, as it marks the renewal of the cycle of the seasons as new life springs forth from the formerly barren soil. Why start the new year in the dead of winter? Julius Caesar changed Rome’s calendar from a lunar to a solar year, and moved the start of the year from March to January (a new month dedicated to the god of entryways). The marking of the New Year brought pagan observances and excessive celebrations, so much so that early Christians observed expiatory fasts in reparation (which some Catholics have now renewed).

In the Middle Ages, there was great variance on the celebration of the New Year: March 1, March 25 (Annunciation), September 1, and even Christmas Day. It was the adoption of the Gregorian calendar that eventually brought uniformity to the date of January 1. That day makes perfect sense for Catholics, even if we are fighting a resurgence of pagan excess surrounding the date. That New Year coincides with the Octave of Christmas is no coincidence. If we count our years from the birth of Christ, Christmas should be the time to mark the beginning of the new year.

Celebrating the new year specifically as the anniversary of the birth of Christ transforms its character. Not only does it point to God’s coming into the world as the central point of history, it also emphasizes that history has a goal. The new year marks the new year of the Lord, belonging to the reign of Christ the King, a period of waiting in expectation for the full unfolding of God’s Kingdom. History itself has the same focal point as Christmas, the coming of Christ into the world, which is why Advent focuses on both of these comings at once.

The celebration of the New Year in January, and in relation to a historical feast, breaks time out of a natural, repetitive cycle. History is not cyclical, or merely an absurdity devoid of meaning (one damn thing after another). We are progressively moving toward a goal from within history, even though this goal leads beyond the world to eternity. It is the coming of God into the world at Christmas which suffuses time with its ultimate meaning.

In his essay “The Christian View of History,” Christopher Dawson argues that the Incarnation brings about “a new creation—the introduction of a new spiritual principle which gradually leavens and transforms human nature into something new. The history of the human race hinges on this unique divine event which gives spiritual unity to the whole historical process.” History makes sense in the Incarnation, as all things before prepare for it, and all things that follow are seen in light of its unfolding (even the challenges to that unfolding).

The modern world has arisen largely in opposition to this understanding of history. The Enlightenment saw God as a threat to human freedom, and the fulfillment of ultimate goals in the eschaton as a cheapening of history’s significance. Modern thinkers and revolutionaries have replaced Christian hope in eternal life with an immanent religion of progress. It is important, however, to recognize that this is no reversion to a pre-Christian paganism, but rather the creation of a Christian heresy, which accepts history’s progressive nature. This heresy deforms Christian faith in God’s providence into faith in the power of technology to create a more perfect life here and now. And as we are seeing, with no clear goal to guide technological development, change for its sake exerts a destructive power.

No one has diagnosed the heresy of modern progress better than Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi. Speaking of the revolution of thought beginning with Bacon, Benedict laid out the program for modern progress as seeking redemption and paradise without God:

[A] disturbing step has been taken: up to that time, the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay “redemption.” Now, this “redemption”, the restoration of the lost “Paradise” is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and other-worldly affairs—and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world. This programmatic vision has determined the trajectory of modern times and it also shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope. Thus hope too, in Bacon, acquires a new form. Now it is called: faith in progress.

In Benedict’s view, our understanding of time relates directly to our concept of hope. Christmas is a time of hope, because God has come to us and has inaugurated the Kingdom of God. If the new year simply reflects a chronological addition, history flattens in its significance, and we are left without any true joy or reason to celebrate. Celebration becomes distraction.

If New Year’s focuses on the Kingdom of God, does this concede to the modern revolutionary? Does Christmas sap the marrow out of the world by placing our hope beyond it? Gaudium et Spes responds to this common assertion by teaching that no tension should exist between earthly progress and the Christian focus on eternity:

Christians, on pilgrimage toward the heavenly city, should seek and think of these things which are above. This duty in no way decreases, rather it increases, the importance of their obligation to work with all men in the building of a more human world. Indeed, the mystery of the Christian faith furnishes them with an excellent stimulant and aid to fulfill this duty more courageously and especially to uncover the full meaning of this activity, one which gives to human culture its eminent place in the integral vocation of man (57).

The Christian vocation, following on the principle of the Incarnation, seeks precisely to bring God to the world, to embody faith within it in order to transform it. It is the vocation of the laity, in particular, to permeate all of human activity with the life of the Church, not to stifle it, but to bring it to a greater perfection in Christ.

How then does this relate to the Catholic celebration of New Year’s Day? The answer is that dates do matter and that the marking of these dates defines how we understand our place within history and God’s plan. New Year’s should reinforce our sense of vocation for the coming year.

As we mark the year 2016, it helps to think back to Pope St. John Paul II’s celebration of the new millennium. John Paul recognized that the marking of 2,000 years from the birth of Christ represented a significant milestone in the life of the Church, a time for Christians to rediscover their vocation in the world. The document, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, in particular, provides a powerful reflection on the Incarnation, a Christian understanding of time, and the way we mark it in our own lives.

With regard to its content, this Great Jubilee will be, in a certain sense, like any other. But at the same time it will be different, greater than any other. For the Church respects the measurements of time: hours, days, years, centuries. She thus goes forward with every individual, helping everyone to realize how each of these measurements of time is imbued with the presence of God and with his saving activity.

New Year’s teaches us how properly to measure time, how to mark the coming of salvation into the world in light of its progressive unfolding in our lives and in human history. John Paul, quoting St. Paul, tells us further that “from this relationship of God with time there arises the duty to sanctify time.” We mark the progression of time as an opportunity to reflect on our own lives in relation to it. Where do we stand within God’s plan for history? How can I immerse my own life into God’s coming into the world? How can I allow God to shape my own life in time, and, through me, to shape history?

Just like the Great Jubilee that John Paul observed, we have another opportunity not only to celebrate a new year, but an Extraordinary Jubilee Year. John Paul taught that “the Jubilee, ‘a year of the Lord’s favour,’ characterizes all the activity of Jesus; it is not merely the recurrence of an anniversary in time.” Anniversaries are not mere numbers, but a way of making present what we celebrate. This New Year’s Day let us celebrate God’s transformation of history by his coming into the world and then let this celebration continue to mark our observance of this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “New Year’s Baby, 1937” illustrated by J. C. Leyendecker, which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

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