The Hand of God

Save for those who ski or take vacations in the south, January and February are not the most charming months and they did not exist at all on the oldest Roman calendar, which had only ten months. Winter was a temporal vacuum and the less said about it the better.  Only in the eighth century before Christ were they named as months. Eventually, January 1 marked the new year.  In the Middle Ages, although the new year began on either the Annunciation or nine months later on Christmas, the old twelve month calendar obtained and January 1 became the official new year’s day again in the 16th century.  Even so, right down to the present, judicial and fiscal calendars often relate to March 25.

The winter months were and are unlovable not because of the cold so much as the dark.  The burning hearth conquers both, as do candles and the fugitive sun, which is why we make so much of them.  But then there is that star over shivering Bethlehem that, according to Aquinas, and later with slight variation by Cornelius a Lapide, was not a star at all but a unique species rather like an angel, not identifiable by the calculations of astronomers. While we do not know exactly when the Magi followed it, or even how many of them there were, we do know that what they saw in Bethlehem made every day of their lives afterward like a perpetual new year’s day. Their homeland seemed foreign forever and the heavens a home. Their Zoroastrianism suddenly seemed no more exotic than Methodism.  T.S. Eliot spoke for them in “The Journey of the Magi:”

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

This then is a meditation on every day since the Incarnation whose beauty, pace Augustine, is “ever ancient, ever new” and winter is always summer and autumn is alive as spring.  As Christ makes all things new, there are no voids on his calendar, and the saints’ feasts bring warmth and light in times of coldest fear and darkest doubt, like the candles of Candlemass  when the old folks in the Temple sing as the newborn Baby cries. Christ does not add new months, but he does add new saints.  Light and warmth come to the world through then in myriad ways, for holiness increases distinctiveness, just as sin blends personality into dullness.

Consider the variety of those canonized last year. Jacques Berthier who died in 1896 at 57, was a French Jesuit missionary martyred in Madagascar.  Pedro Calungsod, who died in 1672 at 17, was a lay catechist martyred in Guam.  Giovanni Piamarta who died in 1913 at 72, as an Italian priest counted among his works the establishment of technical training schools for disadvantaged youths. Marianne Cope who died in 1918 at 80, had come from her native Germany to upstate New York and, as a Franciscan nun, worked among the lepers in Hawaii with St. Damian.  Kateri Tekakwitha who died in 1680 at 24, was an Algonquin-Mohawk who suffered much for the Faith she embrace.  Anna Schaffer who died in 1925, spent almost all of her 43 years as an invalid with mystical gifts as a visionary and miracle worker.  For all of them, what made every hour of every day new, was hope. This needs to be the ensign right now when our civilization, sadly but not without precedent, seems to have entered a harsh winter of the spirit. All of the institutions of our present culture have lowered the hopes of those who harbor a recollection of a more refined culture. It almost seems that Church and Congress and Commerce fit Macaulay’s description of the navy of King Charles II:  “There were gentlemen and there were seamen…But the seamen were not gentlemen: and the gentlemen were not seamen.”  A harsher eye would look and say that it is worse now: it is hard to see gentlemen or seamen at all.  Yet in the coldest and darkest times of the world’s years, there is a constant voice:

Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom. 5:5).

As one might expect, the Chinese calendar system is older than the Roman, and goes back to the Shung dynasty, about as long before the Incarnation as we are after it.  It was an elegant calculation of both solar and lunar phases, with a new year beginning at the first new moon after the winter solstice but, lest we feel inferior, it was vastly improved by Jesuit missionaries who brought to the East both Christ and their astronomy. Fathers Giacomo Rho and Adam Schall conformed the Chinese system to the sinusoid. That is, using the sine function, which is a trigonometric function of an angle, they conformed the calendar to a rhythmic oscillating graph, and that balanced the configuration of dates.  In this I speak as a layman, and any astronomer would say a faulty one; but as a priest, I do remark what a difference this made, not only astronomically but in every way, or would have done so more widely, if the Gospel had been embraced along with the calendar.  In 210 B.C, the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang was buried in his tomb as vast as a city, which he began precociously at the age of thirteen, guarded by the army of 8,000 terracotta soldiers along with their chariot and horses unearthed in 1974 in Shaanxi province.  An estimated 700,000 workers toiled in building all that, and 72,000 of them were buried alive when it was done. By comparison with the Chinese emperor, the Egyptian pharaohs were a lot of laughs. It is unclear what Emperor Qin expected of all that, but it is not what Christ promised, which for one thing is why the Apostles were not immolated with Him.  If the Emperor Qin hoped for some perennial springtime two hundred years before the Incarnation, he made it winter for everyone else. There is a caution here: for the present Chinese government displays this mortuary spectacle with no criticism, and even with admiration for the way the Emperor managed things.

History will not easily confuse the funereal customs of the Qin Dynasty with those of the House of Windsor.  The latter has its own ways, and when King George VI was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, inscribed on the gate of his tomb were words that he had recited over the radio from Sandringham on Christmas 1939, when the dark winter on a new year was about to cast its pall for many years. It was from a poem by a lecturer in the London School of Economics, a quiet lady named Minnie Louise Haskins. While it is sometimes claimed that the Princess Elizabeth had shown it to him, it was first found by his wife at whose own funeral as Queen Mother it was read. The House of Windsor followed the Gregorian calendar, which King George II cautiously adopted at last in 1752.  His immediate successor, himself an amateur astronomer, would be much keener on it.  While none of them was a mystic, they harbored a confidence granted long ago in a foreign land that Christ made home to all. As 1940 was about to begin, the King read in his painfully halting stutter:

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.”


Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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