Saturday, December 31, 2011

January 1, a renewing time

January 1 is a renewing time--a time for new beginnings. The old year has gone and a new one has started. This month is named, appropriately, after the Roman god, Janus, who had two faces—one looking forward and the other backward.

We look backward at the old year, perhaps with a dash of regret for what we should have done, perhaps with sorrow for the loss of loved ones, perhaps with joy and thankfulness, or perhaps with a sigh of relief that we survived the year.

A further retrospective is not necessary--the litany would be too long and unbearable. That we have been able to survive is due to grace--God's grace, which also comforts us as we look back on 2011.

Thus we look forward to the new year. Some of us, however, may be afraid of what the new year may bring. If it brings more of the same as last year, we don’t want it. We don't need more fighting, more violence, more death than in an already turbulent 2011. That was more than enough, thank you!

Many of us want change, starting with ourselves. In North America, people make New Year’s resolutions,  although most of them probably will not survive the first 24 hours. But all of us are waiting for a better world.

We want a new world that is marked with new beginnings. We eagerly anticipate it now already. In fact, we are ready to leap there, if only we could. January 1 is such a new beginning--an entrance to a new world. Let us make use of it, and celebrate the occasion.

But how should we celebrate January 1? Should we look backwards, or forwards, or both? What sort of celebration is appropriate? Obviously not a drunken party, as some tragically assume.

What about God: if you are a believer, what role will you allow him to play in your hopes and plans for the new year? And what part does he play in your celebration?

The first day of the seventh month was the Jewish New Year. Jews call that day “Rosh Hoshanah” or “Head of the Year.” It was a harvest festival that marked the start of the civil year. It marked the new year for people, animals and legal contracts, and was set aside for calculating the calendar, sabbatical and jubilee years.

According to the Jews, this was also the day that God created humanity, as well as “the day of judgment” when the fate of the wicked and the righteous would be determined and the names of the righteous inscribed in the book of life. It was a day of rest, marked by the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn.

In Old Testament times, animal sacrifices were regularly made to atone for sin, but in later Judaism this was replaced with prayers, often near a stream of water, which included the symbolic throwing of one’s sins into the water. Although this day was never expressly called New Year’s Day in the Old Testament, evidently it was regarded as such by Jews from a very early date.

The Hijri or Islamic new year (Arabic: رأس السنة الهجريةRas as-Sanah al-Hijriyah) is the day that marks the beginning of a new Islamic calendar year, and is the day on which the year count is incremented. This day moves throughout the Gregorian calendar year that most of us use.

There are too many other new years, including of course the Chinese, that I don't have time to mention now.

January 1 universally marks the beginning of the new calendar year. This continues an old Roman practice. But this date was not widely accepted in Europe until the 16th century, while Britain and the British Empire did not accept it until 1752. 

The ecclesiastical year begins on the first day of Advent in many Christian churches; while for the Eastern Orthodox it begins on September 1, and for some churches, especially in North America, it seems to begin when school opens in September.

The first of January is a good time to reflect on what God is doing. This is indeed a renewing time, when he is renewing all of creation. Just as January marks the beginning of the new calendar year, it is also a sign of God’s renewal of his creation.

Revelation 21 reveals God’s plan for this renewal. The old world with all its evils will be gone--gone forever. The Lord of the universe explains what he is doing until then: “I am making all things new!”

Everything is being made new. God will not destroy everything that he has made, including people, but he is renewing his creation. That means the environment, for example.

Global warming is not a hoax. God has appointed humans as stewards of creation, which means that we are to take care of this world. It is a garden; thus we must not treat it as a place to dump our industrial waste.

This renewal also means bringing an end to warfare. In the nuclear age, wars are no longer justifiable. The just war theory is not relevant any more, if it ever was entirely. Whether in Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, the Middle East, or wherever, non-violence is the only viable alternative.

God is also working in people like you and me, making us more able to love others and thus to love him better. That is not easy, as I can testify by looking at myself. Improvements are sorely needed, as my own list of New Year's resolutions mutely testifies.

My hope and prayer is that 2012 may be a better year for all of us. May this new year indeed be a time of new beginnings, and may it be truly peaceful as well as filled with countless blessings for you and your family.

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