The birthday of the Lord is the birthday of peace, as Paul the Apostle says: For he is our peace, who has made us both one; for whether we be Jew or Gentile, through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father. Pope Leo the Great
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 thought about this oddity a bit and have come to the conclusion that it has to do with my Christian faith. The first fact is that I have little human faith that the coming year will be any 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.
When one thinks about it, the beginning of a new year is rather arbitrary, there being no essential reason why the calendar could not appoint the new year in March or July or September. I have no problem with January being the designated starting point, but it remains true that this is simply an arbitrary designation. On the other hand, there is something quite factual and quite important in the truth that another year has passed, and that we are indeed closer today than we were a year ago today to the blessed event when Christ will return in glory. Now that is a cause for joy.
My second thought is that at the same time, and for the same reason, 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 and his coming, and the final establishment of the kingdom of God both on earth and in the heavens. The kingdom is already firmly established in heaven itself, but it is not yet fully perfected in the creation, in this world and in the universe. But. We are now one year closer to that happening. This too fills me with great joy, that we are now closer than we were a year ago to the end of all innocent suffering, to the death of death, and to the extension of God’s perfect happiness into his creation.
The Moravian 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.” Now that is what the Christian heart truly looks forward to, the new heavens and the new earth were suffering and death shall be no more, and on that day songs of praise will indeed hail the birth of this new creation, and it will be one song that never ends.
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 on us by God? Well, we have been celebrating them for the past seven days. Again 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, beyond the arbitrary designation of a new year. 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. Now that is something worth looking forward to, and unlike the happiness we tenuously hope for in the coming year, it’s advent is certain.
And finally 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. Again St. Leo’s homily, recalled by the Church on the Eve of this great Octave, teaches us about this gift so much better than any of my poor words could express: it’s the gift of peace we pray for in a spoecial way on January 1st each year.
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; it is God’s peace, from which we Christians “spring” with joy, which mother’s our unity and refreshes the blessed for all eternity! Now, that is indeed a source of great happiness when we contemplate this truth at the end of Christmas and the beginning of the new year in time. 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 this happiness and peace, being spiritually separated from this world and its deceptions.
So we must never allow the spiritually vacuous festivity of the world to draw us into its trap. As Paul once again in Colossians 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, that can seduce us away from Christ and his peace into the shallow promises of final happiness in this world. 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 when made 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.