Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Ever since Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar in the 16th century, people have been celebrating the first of January as the beginning of the New Year. In many ways, the transition from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1 is no more significant than any other night giving way to a new day. Yet, even from ancient times, the transition to a new year has been invested with meaning. Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks and Romans marked this passage as a moment to celebrate.
In the 7th century B.C., the Greeks initiated the custom of using a baby to symbolize the New Year. They celebrated Dionysius, the god of wine, by parading a baby in a basket. This reminded them of the myth that each year Dionysius would be reborn and the land would become fertile. The early Egyptians also used the baby as a symbol of rebirth. Like these ancient peoples, our tradition of personifying the New Year as a diaper-clad baby announces the promise of hope, rebirth and new life for the coming year.
Nonetheless, with each New Year, we cannot simply sweep away the past with all its hardships, broken promises, disappointed dreams and, in many cases, the deaths of those we love. The song, the dance and the lifting up of our glasses in repeated cheers cannot banish from our hearts all anxiety about what lies ahead. We painfully recognize that we live in a fallen world where sin bares its ugly face in prejudice and hatred and raises its brutal hand in violence and terror. The stark reality of life confronts us with the hard fact that the New Year will not be the golden age of peace and prosperity. Yet, as people of faith, we still celebrate.
On the threshold of a New Year, we recall the first words of Sacred Scripture, “In the beginning…” That day, as the poet Shelley describes, was the day “when God first dawned on chaos.” Ever since, God has been present to our world, working to bring order and harmony into his creation. He has not abandoned his plan for our happiness as his children.
Even after our first parents rejected God’s offer to co-operate fully in his plan, God did not give up on us. In years long past, God worked through imperfect people to bring his world to completion. And, he continues to work through us who are less than perfect.
Creation once fell effortlessly from God’s fingertips when he commanded, “Let there be light.” But the recreation of the world requires great effort on our part. Christ has come as “the true light that enlightens every person” (Jn 1:19). He is, as we profess in the Creed, “Light from Light.” When we live the truth that he brings and follow the way that he has chosen to tread, creation itself is freed from its bondage to sin; and, we find the path to true happiness.
In Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead, God is accomplishing his plan for us. He uses our finite abilities and talents. But, in his hands, what we offer does more than we can do on our own. Here is born our hope for the New Year: God’s power is greater than our human strengths. His plan for our true happiness stretches beyond the limits of another year. As believers, therefore, we trust not in what we do, but in God. He is bringing us across the span of years to eternity where he will fill us with joy beyond all imagining. Thus, every New Year celebrates our hope for what is yet to come.