January 1, 2005
Almost every English-speaking country welcomes in the New Year with the same song. In New York City, as the clock strikes twelve and the revelers in Times Square raise their hue and cry, the musicians play and the teary-eyed sing
Auld Lang Syne. Written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, the song marks the passing of time into the present moment. The song’s title means “old long ago.” Most of us sing the lyrics without grasping the meaning of the words; yet, somehow the melody opens our heart to the message. The song strikes a note somewhere between companionship lost by time and conviviality shared in the present moment. The chorus of the song expresses a question that lies buried deep within the human psyche. Should we forget the past? Should we never bring to mind the friendships and acquaintance of times gone by? This is the moment when we bid farewell to the past and yet long for those joys we once had. This is the moment we embrace the future and hope for better days. The beginning of the New Year has for centuries celebrated this meaning.
History dates the oldest New Year’s celebration to ancient Babylon over 4,000 years ago. Our own celebration traces its origin to 1870 when Ulysses S. Grant made January 1st a Federal holiday. Different peoples have placed the starting point for the New Year at different places on the calendar. When we date our letters and our checks with the months of September, October, November and December, we are unwittingly remembering the time when the New Year did not begin on January 1st. The names of these months come from the numbers seven, eight, nine and ten. September was the 7th month from March and October the 8th because March was reckoned the first month of the calendar. The Romans began their year in March. In England from the 13th century to the 18th, March was reckoned as the beginning of the year because of the feast of the Annunciation (March 25). This feast commemorates the Incarnation of the Son of God—a new beginning for humanity.
Different dates, but always the same desire—to linger on memory, to regret the wrongs of the past, and to redirect ourselves to make a better future. As a sign of hope and a fresh start today, the baby in diapers appears at parties on January 1. When the Germans first came to America, they brought with them that image of the baby as the symbol of the New Year. However, six centuries before Christ, the Greeks were already carrying in procession a baby representing the god Dionysius. He was the god of wine and fertility, an apt symbol in their religion for the annual rebirth of nature. At the beginning of the New Year, the Church holds up for us a baby. The liturgy celebrates the Baby who brings more than a promise for those longing for a better world.
A quick glance backwards over the previous years and we see the bodies of too many soldiers and civilians strewn across the battlefields. We watch thousands starving in a world where food is plentiful. We witness a nation returned from the polls and fighting over basic issues of life and death. Not everyone accepts the dignity of the human person that begins at conception and ends at natural death. Not everyone questions the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment. Some campaign to redefine marriage; some, to curtail freedom of religion. We look forward and hope for more unity on fundamental issues that affect the common good, for more peace among nations, for more understanding even in moments of hurt. A look within and we recognize that our own personal lives are marred by pain, disappointment and by loss. But we also look at the Baby before us.
“In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, born of a woman (
Gal 4:4).” The Baby before us is the Eternal Son of God. He has entered this world and accepted our condition in order to redeem us. Our world and our lives are disfigured by the terrible legacy of sin. But our world is now a world saved by the Coming of Christ. Our lives are now sanctified by the Child who comes to direct our human history from within. Our world is the theater of the tragedies and the triumphs of human freedom. “The Christian sees [this world] as created and sustained by its Maker's love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God's design and reach its fulfillment” (
Gaudium et Spes, 2). This is why what Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most renowned speakers of the 1840’s, once said remains true. He remarked, “Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page. Take up one hole more in the buckle if necessary, or let down one, according to circumstances; but on the first of January let every man gird himself once more, with his face to the front, and take no interest in the things that were and are past.”
The Baby before us offers us the grace to get out from under the influence of evil. The Christ Child held in Mary’s loving embrace extends his arms to beckon us to himself to join with him in our walk back to God. He holds those arms over us in blessing, filling us with the grace we need to turn from our sins and begin anew. No believer can regard New Year’s Day with indifference. It is the gift to be born again, to leave behind the old Adam and enter the new creation. As we welcome the New Year, it’s the moment “
to take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.” For the kindness we now imbibe is “...the kindness and love of God …generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our savior…” (
Through the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, may Christ grant us the gift of peace in our day.