So now the first of January has come and gone. You remember that on Advent Sunday I handed out calendars to mark the new year? Were there parties in the Church then? No. Did we stay up till midnight to watch the new year come in then? No. Did parents with children keep them up so that they could see the fireworks at the places where they had them? Probably. Does all this matter? I don’t know! Which is why I’m about to write this reflection.
Once coming back from Europe to Australia, our plane was held up by 3 hours because we had no air crew! We were a planeload of 300 or more people waiting to go on board, while the air crew was stuck in traffic in Bangkok. This was early February. Why? It was the Chinese new year! Clearly there were enough Chinese in Bangkok who wanted to celebrate so that the traffic came to a standstill. But there are not enough Jews or Muslims anywhere much (perhaps except in Israel and Arab countries) to make fireworks and bring the traffic to a stop in other countries. And another thing. In some countries, the end of the financial year ends on June 30th. Tax returns have to be prepared then and the books of businesses are closed off and audited then etc. Given the dominance of finances in our world at the moment it is strange that we don’t have fireworks on 30th June in some places (although perhaps some accountants are up past midnight on that day doing the books!).
So my first question is ‘How does the 1st January become ‘New Year’? A little searching on the internet says that it was as late as the 1700’s that England adopted the 1st January as the new year. This was connected with the adoption of the calendar of pope Gregory, which placed the new year on the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (8 days after his birth on 25th December). In Germany they call it ‘Sylvester’ named after the feast of Pope Sylvester. As the world becomes ever more globalized and interconnected I am thinking that there will need to be a ‘global’ beginning to the year. Because of the dominance of England and the time-keeping of Greenwich I guess it makes a kind of sense to adopt the English system of counting the days.
But a question still remains for me about the reality that determines our lives (Christ) and the forms that we use to express that reality (sacraments). If it is true that we ‘start again’ on 1st January, and we stay up late to welcome the ‘new year’ and we make ‘new year resolutions’ about how things are going to be different ‘this year’ why do we continue with Advent at all? If this is the moment when, culturally speaking, we begin again with an examination of our lives and a resolution to ‘do better’, what is the point of preparing for Christmas?
There are a number of stories that I know that shed some light on this for me. When the first missionary (Coman) came from Iona to Northumbria he had little success through his preaching and went home. After him came Aidan who began his monastery on Lindisfarne and would walk from village to village talking to people who would talk top him. He gave away the horse that he was given to a beggar because he knew that riding would separate him from the people he came to serve. Aidan’s missionary method consisted of building relationships, and the example of his life in prayer. Instead of speaking about the difference that Christian living made, Aiden put on what is known in the literature as ‘demonstration events’, that is, instead of telling people about Christianity, he showed them!
That might be a good place for us to start. I wonder what kinds of things would represent ‘Demonstration Events’ for us? At the moment we are working on our welcome in the Eucharist. That is one thing. Our intercessions list and the prayers that people offer in Church is also another way of letting people know what is important to us. We have plans to put on seminars about issues of concern, once the hospitality area is finished. That is another way of showing what this congregation is ‘on about’.
In the demonstrating of how Christianity makes a difference, each person or congregation has to decide for themselves what that might be and be prepared to count the cost of what that difference means to them. You know the old phrase ‘If it’s everyone’s job all the time, then it’s no one’s job any of the time!’ The same is true for Christians. If there is actually no time when you say to people ‘I am doing ‘X’ because I am a Christian, but that everything is done in order to hide the fact from others that one is a Christian, then what is the point? If being Christian makes no difference, why do it? So that is the first thing that my protest about the calendar does. It is not very powerful I know, but it is some small thing that costs me something to produce, that says ‘Here is a difference that Christianity makes. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and our time is in God’s hands who is the ‘potentate of time’. It is true that not only did the missionaries live among the people (like Aidan) but that they also cut down their sacred trees (like Boniface) or stopped the people from observing some pagan customs.
I remember when I became a Christian as an adult I announced to the people that I would stop smoking. I said ‘Well if I am set free by Christ, then I ought to be able to show it be being free of tobacco!’ I did (for a while) and gave it up again later for good. That is the kind of change that I think we ought to be able to show and be able to talk about.
But then there are lots of people who have midnight services on 31st December, and make a lot of meaning out of ‘baptizing’ the secular feast. I have been to such services in Germany that were well enough attended (when Christmas Eve was not on the agenda) and the meaning that people made out of that service was one of looking back in review over the past year, and looking forward in hope to the coming year. There is lots of meaning that can be made out of such reflection and it ‘fits in’ with the broad cultural sweep of things. My problem is that it makes Advent a bit irrelevant. I wonder what difference it would make if we separated the idea of ‘new year’ from Advent and just kept advent as the fast before the feast of Christmas? That would solve the contradiction for me, but it would remove the idea of the coming of Christ as the ‘making of all things new’ and the beginning of a new era. But even when Pope Gregory introduced his new calendar, he kept the much older Roman date 1st Jan as the beginning of the year.
So my thinking about the calendar is still conflicted. I would like the Church members to keep Advent and keep that date as the new year’s day for the purpose of making a distinction between ‘Church = real time’ and secular time. I can see the value too of baptizing secular time, but only if this is not a form of capitulation to ‘the ways of the world’. I’ll keep thinking and talking!