Why Catholics Needn’t Celebrate New Year’s Day

On Friday, January 1, the secular world will observe “New Year’s Day.” The Catholic world will not, for two reasons. One is that we have a genuine religious feast day to observe, in celebration of Mary, the Mother of God. The second is that Catholics don’t find much use in celebrating the chronological movement from December 31, 2015 to January 1, 2016. Not because we are grumpy, and not because we are boring. Catholics don’t have much use for “New Year’s,” simply because we live on a different sort of calendar than the rest of the world.

The Catholic calendar is not progressive, in the sense that it does not continuously march on from one date to the next indefinitely, as does the secular calendar. The Catholic calendar is perpetually seasonal, cyclical, and repetitive. We like rote prayers, not just because we happen to have them memorized, but because we have accepted the rotary characteristic of our faith, our lives, and the world.  Shortened attention span created by technological gluttony and self-centeredness isn’t the only reason the secular world is bored by repetition. Fascination with the new is rooted in a worldview opposed to ours, which is enamored with the novel and dissatisfied with the static. Pope Francis, for example, has warned of “those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress,” pointing out that they are largely to blame for causing the very problems that many contemporary progressives claim to be solving (Laudato Si, 60).

The progressive worldview has interesting origins from the perspective of religious history. Biblical religion brought with it a new emphasis on the idea of progress, in that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures testified to a cosmic significance in individual persons and actions that was somewhat foreign to the pagan philosophies. The Judeo-Christian view of history was purposeful and directed in obedience to divine vocation, in opposition to the more strictly cyclical Greco-Roman pagan worldview in which the temporal actions of both gods and men were often situational and arbitrary. “One of the reasons that notions of progress and science and technology may have emerged in the West” wrote Robert Royal, “is precisely because this unique religious underpinning allowed for a different view of the significance of time and did not see the unfolding of new things as a threat to some pre-established order.” The Christian worldview acknowledges the human capability for growth, but avoids deifying it by constantly emphasizing divine initiative and sustenance. Ironically, anti-religious forms of progressivism and individualism have emerged, even though the value of progress and individual identity originated from the Biblical worldview. Alister McGrath has suggested, in Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, that this distorted tendency has been caused, in no small part, by the influence of non-Catholic brands of Christianity. According to him:

The rise of Protestantism is widely held to be linked with the transition between a medieval notion of worldly order, founded upon an order imagined to be natural and eternal, and a modern order founded upon the acceptance, even encouragement, of change as a means of pursuing the good.

According to this perspective, progressivism in all its forms is not merely a product of modernism, it is its creator. In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry wrote, “What has drawn the modern world into being is a strange, almost occult yearning for the future … the modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for heaven.” Why is this worldview so attractive? Berry noted that “The future is always free of past limitations and present demands, always stocked with newer merchandise than are presently available, always promising that what we are going to have is better than what we have.”

The Catholic worldview is, instead, a sacramental one. If God is outside of time, then so too, at least to a degree, is our communion with him—firstly in our particular participation in the sacraments, but also in the rest of our lives as a continued manifestation of and participation in that sacramental communion. The Catholic life is in tune with eternity, and thus always has a quality of, and preference for, timelessness. “You turn man back to dust, saying ‘Return, O children of men.’ For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, now that it is past, or as a watch of the night”(Psalm 90). St. Peter echoes this Psalm when he says, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Peter 3:8b-10a). Human time has no bearing on the God who is creator and master of all ages.

In his book The Death of Christian Culture, John Senior traced the rise of progressivism to the “death of ideas” in the modern philosophical landscape. “Having repudiated ideas, we are left with what we can immediately observe,” said Senior. He points out that in a world that rejects reality, processes become our focal point, and “man is taken to be nothing more than motion.” Senior extrapolates this position to show that, according to progressive ideology, the only way to exist, for a modern, is to be “new.” While Augustine described the “eternal now” of God in which the present moment is subsumed into the unchanging divine reality, progressives believe in a twisted parody, which states that all of reality is located and found in the present moment. According to Senior, “Anyone who conceives existence in this way is inevitably an exoticist. He allies himself with the current and the novel, and therefore always the strange. He has a rage for the latest thing because it would be death not to be new—the latest news, scientific invention, experimental novel, critical theory, fashion. To be is to be avant garde.”

Our rejection of progressivism leads some to accuse Catholics of being overly nostalgic; the implication being that we automatically prefer the past, and are therefore uninterested in, or ill equipped for, the present and future. Catholics are nostalgic, but perhaps not in the pejorative sense. The word nostalgia is a combination of the Greek νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming,” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache.” Our true yearning is not for what is next, or what is newest. Nor is our yearning for what is past, what is oldest, what has been. Human, and religious, nostalgia has nothing to do with time; it has to do with place—sometimes physical, e.g. your hometown—but always with state, e.g., satisfaction, completion, perfection, restfulness. We yearn for the place at which we are no longer tending towards something else. For believers, this is ultimately heaven, and temporally those people, places, and things which get us closer to it. God, as Aquinas taught us, is pure act—unalloyed being which necessitates and tolerates no change. By this definition, the desire for perpetual change, newness, and advancement towards “the future” signals a real philosophical problem. While change is necessary, and through it ought to come real progress towards the ideal, unqualified change itself does not seem worthy of celebration.

Then why do we celebrate it? We like to measure change because it heightens the feeling of motion. For better (the claim of progressives), or for worse (claim of millenialists, Malthusian population bomb predictors and other sorts of doomsday obsessives), things are not the same. Ironically, focusing on change exonerates me both from self-improvement and trust. When I can look out my window and see rapid change, I become disoriented, because there is no fixed standard by which to measure personal improvement. Alternatively, the reflective man always faces the rising sun—properly oriented towards the unchanging Lord perpetually rising in the East, making each day new again, yet old unto ages and ages. The reflective man is forced to perform the daily self-evaluation because his eyes are fixed on God.

And yet, on December 31, we find the world gearing up for what is proposed to be the “party of the year.” Is it evil? No, but neither is it a real celebration, at least in its connection with the calendar. If it is going to be a real celebration, from the Catholic perspective, it must be about something more. “There are worldly, but there are no purely profane, festivals,” wrote Josef Pieper in In Tune with the World. “And we may presume that not only can we not find them, but that they cannot exist. A festival without gods is a non-concept, is in-conceivable”

New Year’s is a definitively secular (saecula—“this age”) holiday. But, like so many worldly things, it can be redeemed. On The Feast of Mary, Mother of God, Catholics celebrate the one thing that is worth celebrating, and the one thing that makes other celebrations possible, fitting, and even necessary. According to Pieper, “festivals could not be celebrated as special, rare, and exceptional days, and celebrated spontaneously, if the festive occasion did not exist continually and without cessation and were not so experienced. If any specific day is to be singled out from the rest and celebrated as a festival, this can only be done as the manifestation of a perpetual though hidden festivity.”

May our New Year’s celebrations be filled with the Faith, Hope, and Love due to the One who sits at the head of this and every feast. May we sing the praises of Mary, the Mother of God, our “old acquaintance” who ought never be forgotten. And may the new year be resplendent with the blessings of her son, our Lord, whom we celebrate now and forever.

Dusty Gates

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Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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