The Roman god Janus, for whom this first month of the year is named, was the god of beginnings and endings, of doors and passageways, of past and future. Hence he was typically portrayed with two faces – one looking back to the past, the other ahead to the future. In a sense, that is what we all do every year on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. We look back on the past, particularly the past year, perhaps with some mixture of gratitude and regret, while we likewise look ahead, sometimes with worry but with worry mixed always with hope. Some of these sentiments are captured in the religious customs that have traditionally been associated with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day – the traditional singing of the Te Deum, the Church’s official hymn of thanksgiving on New Year’s Eve, and the Veni Creator, the Church’s great hymn invoking the grace of the Holy Spirit on New Year’s Day.
Speaking personally, my own feeling is that 2015 has not been the sort of year that much of the world will look back on with much fondness. One New York Times columnist has even called 2015 “a memento mori moment for our institutions — a year of cracks in the system, of crumbling firewalls, of reminders that all orders pass away.” Individually, we may treasure some memories from this year, but, in the bigger picture nationally and globally, in many ways it has been a bad year all around.
All of which reminds me of the comedian George Burns better laugh-lines, which I typically tend to quote on New Year’s: “Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” Burns remarked, “I always looked forward to New Year’s mainly because it was the only thing we could afford that was really new.” That was the comedian's laugh line. But then he added: “And we always believed that things were going to get better during the New Year.”
And that is what brings us to the threshold of a new year, willing to turn from Janus’s backward look to look ahead with hope. If history has taught us anything, of course, it has taught us the fragility of some of so many of the things we are tempted to pin our hopes on.
But there is another hope – the hope that brings us here to this church today. It is not a hope in things, the things our commercial, consumerist culture encourages to put our faith in. It is not a hope in what John’s Gospel (which we heard on Christmas Day) calls nature or human choice or man’s decision. Rather it is a hope founded in God, whose Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, whose birth some 20 centuries ago is the very basis for the calendar we are so conscious of today. But its significance goes way beyond the calendar. As Pope Francis expressed it in the opening words of his new year’s message: God is not indifferent! God cares about mankind! God does not abandon us!
But, while the Christmas story confirms for us that God is not indifferent, we are still quite capable of responding with indifference. Hence the Holy Father’s invitation to respond differently during this Holy Year of Mercy, in the spirit of which he has called on all of us “to realize how indifference can manifest itself in our lives and to work concretely to improve the world around us, beginning with our families, neighbors, and places of employment.” [Message of XLIX World Day of Peace, 8]
The birth of Christ – to a particular mother, as a member of a particular nation, living in a particular place and at a particular time in human history - has realigned all of time and given all of human history a new significance and has offered us a new hope for a future which we would never otherwise have had.
Time has always been very precious – precisely, perhaps, because we have only such a limited supply of it. By becoming part of our time, however, God has turned our limited time on earth into a time of unlimited opportunity. So today he invites us to receive this new year – this year of our Lord 2016 – with gratitude as his gift and to enter into it with the joy and hope that counts as one of God’s greatest Christmas gifts to us.
New Year's Homily, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 1, 2016