I know it may sound odd, but in recent years I’ve felt much happier on New Year’s Eve than on New Year’s Day. I’ve come to the conclusion that the oddity has to do with my Christian faith. I have little human faith: that the coming year will be happier than the past year, or any other. But I do have supernatural faith that we are now one year closer in human history to the culmination of God’s plan for our true happiness, which is eternal.
So I think it’s perfectly sound both psychologically and spiritually to rejoice that another year has passed and that we are now one year closer to the eschaton.
The beginning of a new year is arbitrary; there’s no essential reason why the year couldn’t begin in March, July, or September. January is fine with me, but it’s simply a convention. By contrast, there’s something quite important in the fact that another year has passed, that we are indeed closer today than we were a year ago to the day when Christ will return in glory. Now that is a cause for joy.
It is also a fact that we are now a “year” closer to that moment when human suffering will come to an end, at least for the innocent, and when death will be no more. Again, this has to do solely with Christ – his Second Coming, and the final establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in the heavens.
The poet James Thompson captured this beautiful truth in a hymn for the Christmas Season:
Heav’n and earth must pass away,
Songs of praise shall crown that day;
God will make new heav’n and earth,
Songs of praise, shall hail their birth.
And those will be songs that never end.
So then what’s left for the celebration of the arbitrary New Year? Well, for one thing Christians will see the new year as a symbolic anticipation of that eternal day when all things will be made new. That certainly is a cause for great joy, and it is a cause that is not rooted in the sentimentality and false hope that is often expressed in our greetings for what has become a secular holiday rather than a Christian holy day. Ours is a firm hope rooted in reality, but understood only by faith.
It is this gift of faith that keeps us from slipping in to the worldliness that surrounds the celebration of New Year’s Day throughout the world. For, as St Paul teaches us in Colossians, “We have received not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”
And what are these gifts bestowed? Well, we have been celebrating them for the past seven days. St. Leo helps us understand the source of our limited but true happiness in this world: “In the very act in which we are reverencing the birth of our Savior, we are also celebrating our own new birth. For the birth of Christ is the origin of the Christian people; and the birthday of the head is also the birthday of the body.”
So there is something truly new for us to celebrate on New Year’s Day. What’s truly and wonderfully “new” is found in us. For in celebrating Christ’s birth, for the eight days of the octave of Christmas, we are also celebrating our own new birth, plus the beginning of the Christian people who are the extended body of the mystical Christ.
From this Christian perspective, the first day of January truly can have a deep significance as the culmination of our Christmas joy, for it points us toward the utterly transcendent “newness” brought about by the incarnation and birth of Christ. One day, there will truly be the “first day” of the new creation in all its splendor – something worth looking forward to. Unlike the happiness we tenuously hope for in the coming year, it’s advent is certain.
There is one more tremendous gift that we are called to celebrate on the Octave of Christmas while the world around us celebrates the dawn of a new year. The Church recalls it in Leo’s homily on the Eve of this great Octave: it’s the gift of peace we pray for in a special way each January 1:
But what can we find in the treasure of the Lord’s bounty more in keeping with the glory of this feast than that peace which was first announced by the angelic choir on the day of his birth? For that peace, from which the sons of God spring, sustains love and mothers unity; it refreshes the blessed and shelters eternity; its characteristic function and special blessing is to join to God those whom it separates from this world.
There you have the gift on which we focus our faith and our prayers on January 1st each year, the Octave of Christmas: God’s peace, from which we Christians “spring” with joy, which mother’s our unity and refreshes the blessed for all eternity! But note that Leo limits the possession of this peace and the anticipation of eternal bliss to those whom this peace “separates from the world.” That’s the key to all true happiness and peace, being spiritually separated from the world and its deceptions.
So we must never allow the spiritually vacuous festivity of the world to draw us into its trap. Paul warns us: “ See to it that no one deceives you through any empty, seductive philosophy that follows mere human traditions, a philosophy based on cosmic powers rather than on Christ.” There were empty human traditions then, and there are new ones today. These worldly philosophies are no longer based on cosmic powers but on the even more shallow powers of this world, the powers of science and economy and technology – as substitutes for God.
Only if we keep Christ at the very center of our existence can we ever hope to know the joy and happiness that nothing and no one can take from us. Faith, then, is the Christmas gift that allows us to truly wish each other a Happy New Year, with all that implies in the mind and heart of the Christian.