New Year’s always reminds me of something the late George Burns once wrote in The New York Times: “Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” Burns wrote, “I always looked forward to New Year’s mainly because it was the only thing we could afford that was really new.” Burns was a lifelong, professional comedian, of course, and that was his laugh line. But then he added: “And we always believed that things were going to get better during the New Year.”
Historically, different peoples and cultures have marked the passing of the year with many different customs and even on many different dates. When, for example, George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, in colonial Virginia, it was already February 22, 1732, in Catholic Quebec and Latin America. Just 10 days ago, all sorts of people preoccupied themselves (in a somewhat silly way) with the ancient Mayan calendar. Our preoccupation with the computing of time, the movements of the sun and the moon, the changing of the seasons, and the repetitive cycle of years, however, has been universal. Whether celebrated in spring, summer, autumn, or the dead of winter (as we do), the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one have universally been seen as a special moment in time, when past and future meet. Before anyone ever exchanged Christmas presents, people were giving each other New Year’s gifts. The Chinese even had New Year’s greeting cards – over a thousand years ago.
Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years – our preoccupation with time is itself apparently timeless. It may be one of our most distinctly human traits, since one of the earliest things human beings became aware of must have been our own mortality – the fact that we live and die in a set period of time. Time is truly precious - precisely because we have just a limited amount of it.
Of course, most of that time is what we might call “Ordinary time” – the day-to-day routine of work and personal life, punctuated by those special moments, the highs and lows of life, most of which happen when they happen, not particularly according to any calendar. Yet the calendar is always there, and never more obviously than on this day, when the simple act of changing the date makes us stop and think about what, if anything, it all means.
If history has taught us anything, it has taught us the fragility of some of the things we want to pin our hopes on. All over the world, people are beginning a new year with worries and anxieties about basic, important things - our country’s economy, far away wars and close-to-home violence, and, of course, the perennial worries about one’s job, one’s career, one’s family, in other words the future. It’s not for nothing, after all, that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Yet we still come to this new year with hope. Like George Burns, we want to believe that things may be better in this new year, better for ourselves, better for the world. Hope is everyone’s response to the universal human desire for happiness. Hope keeps us from giving in to discouragement and sustains us in times of difficulty. Hope takes us out of ourselves and unites us with others.
Our hope – the hope that brings us here to this church today – is founded on Jesus Christ, whose birth some 20 centuries ago is the very basis for the calendar we are so conscious of today. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law … so that we might receive adoption. In those familiar words from his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul expresses two fundamental facts. First, Jesus was born of a woman – the woman whose motherhood we celebrate at the beginning of each new year. In other words, Jesus is a real human being, born as one of us.
Second, he was born under the law. In other words, he was a member of a particular people - the Jewish people – and so circumcised on the 8th day in fulfillment of God’s ancient covenant with Abraham.
In an 1870 Christmas sermon, Servant of God Isaac Hecker said: “In the creation God made man like Himself. In the Incarnation, God made Himself like man. … Christ is our brother who we can approach with feelings of confidence and affection. … The invisible became visible. God became Man. … The Almighty God a helpless infant. O folly of Divine Love, thus to stoop and win human hearts. God has made Himself of no account for our sakes.”
The birth of Christ – to a particular woman, part of a particular nation, in a particular place, at a particular time in human history - has realigned all of time and given all of human history a new significance. The birth of Christ – to a particular woman, part of a particular nation, in a particular place, at a particular time in human history - has offered us a hope for the future which we would never otherwise have had.
By becoming part of our limited human time, God has turned this limited human time into a time of unlimited opportunity. Today, he invites us to enter this new year – this year of our Lord 2013 – not in fear or desperation, but with the hope that is one of God’s greatest Christmas gifts to us.
Happy New Year!
Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 1, 2013
(Photo: Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Roman Stational Church for January 1)