There is something deep in the human heart that always yearns for fresh starts and new beginnings. Once in a while, we even look backwards and recall moments in life when things seemed to begin wonderfully anew. We inevitably hope to duplicate the experience again, especially as a new calendar year approaches on the horizon each year.
Over the centuries, there has been a familiar and popular Catholic custom which introduces the Midnight Mass each Christmas Eve with a solemn proclamation of a series of calendar dates from the annals of ancient history into which Jesus was born. That formal statement serves to underscore the reality of the Word entering human history. It also reminds us of the unfolding temporal context into which he came.
That liturgical announcement, abbreviated below from the “Roman Martyrology,” heralds our annual celebration of the birth of Christ against a background of successive dates:
“In the year 5199 since the creation of the world, in the year 2957 since the flood, in the year 2015 since Abraham’s birth, in the year 1510 since the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, in the year 1032 since David was anointed king … in the year 752 since the building of Rome … in the 42nd year of the reign of Octavian Augustus … Jesus Christ was born at Bethlehem.”
Obviously, these dates were formulated by a very narrow calculation of the years listed in the Scriptures. They (though not the liturgical text) were completely revised centuries ago by a newer scientific appreciation of the universe and its expansive history. In fact, we now suspect that our solar system (and the earthly-years marked therein) may have existed for as much as some 13 billion years. Nevertheless, the fact is that Jesus was born into our human history however extended it may be. We Christians have made that fact central in our calculations of time. We listen as the ancient text is chanted each year.
The Julian calendar of 12 months, each comprised of 30 or 31 days (with February alone as a shorter exception), was introduced into Western European society by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. From the start, his scientists added an extra day every four years to reflect the solar cycle more accurately.
In the year 525 A.D., an early Christian scholar by the name of Dionysius Exiguous restudied human history, and (to the best of his ability) calculated the exact year of Christ’s birth, and labeled it as the year 1 A.D., the beginning of Western civilization. More precise later study concluded that Dionysius had been off by a few years. (That makes the curious conclusion that Jesus may have been born in 4 to 6 B.C. He must shake his heavenly head in amusement.)
After over a millennium and a half, the yearly calendar was then corrected by about 13 days by scientists in the court of Pope Gregory XII in 1582 A.D., to make our numbers reflect the solar system more accurately. England and its colonies only accepted that Gregorian adjustment in 1752. So here we are on the cusp of 2018 A.D.
Early on, traditional ancient Jewish scholars studied their Scriptures, carefully tabulated the years and decided that they are now in the year 5758 from the beginning of creation. Their new year will begin this autumn with the Feast of Rosh Hashanah on Monday, Sept. 10.
The Muslim calendar numbers the years of their history from the flight of the Prophet Muhammad to Jerusalem in 622 A.D.; they will begin their New Year celebration of 1440 on the Feast of Muharram, also on Sept. 10, 2018.
However, we calculate the beginning of another earthly travel cycle around the sun, every New Year is a time of festivity and fresh starts. We are all aware of the custom of making New Year’s resolutions. We invariably make a few, and probably within a few weeks find the need to either adjust the plan or acknowledge that it was another futile burst of good intentions.
Time itself is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, each moment of which can only be experienced once. If used poorly and wasted, it can never return for a second effort or rerun.
Each year at the Holy Saturday vigil, we bless a new Easter candle and inscribe the year’s four-digit number on its waxen side with the solemn prayer:
Christ yesterday and today
the Beginning and the End
the Alpha and the Omega.
All time belongs to Him
and all the ages.
To him be glory and power
through every age and forever. Amen.
This is a prayer we probably should say on New Year’s Eve as well.