We are a people who live by the calendar. We use the calendar to mark the passing of seasons, to mark anniversaries and birthdays and liturgical feast days, and we use them to mark holidays.
A few weeks ago, we put our parish calendars out at the entrances of the church. As I was organizing them, the sheer randomness of calendars struck me.
Much of what we celebrate as holidays are arbitrary days on the calendar, simply chosen and then printed in the little boxes for any given month. So, Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November, Memorial Day is the last Monday in May, Labor Day is the first Monday in September, and a new year always begins on the first day of the month of January.
We have an ambitious Roman dictator-for-life, and a frustrated Roman pontiff, to thank for that one.
A year is 365.2422 days (according to NASA), the amount of time it takes our planet to make one orbit around the star at the center of our planetary system. We round the number down to 365 days, adding a leap day for slightly less than a quarter of all years to keep things in balance.
Now, technically, since a year marks an orbit and not a specific solar event, we could pick any one of those 365 days to be the beginning of a new year. The calendar in the Roman Republic was a mess when Julius Caesar decided to realign the calendar to the seasons; that it helped to consolidate Roman dominance over a newly won empire was more than a happy benefit.
He established the first day of January as the beginning of the year because it was the day the Roman consuls took office, and it was a month dedicated to Janus, their god with two faces, looking forward and back.
Of course, the empire fell and with it a central authority to keep the calendars aligned. As happens, the dates and the seasons slowly fell out of balance and with them, the date of Easter (the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox) kept slipping forward on the calendar.
In 1582, a frustrated Pope Gregory XIII promulgated the bull Inter gravissimas which established the calendar we know and love today; but to correct the misalignment and have everything in balance when the new calendar took effect, Pope Gregory did away with 10 days. In 1582, when you went to bed on October 4, you woke up on October 15, just like that. With his new calendar, the Holy Father re-established January 1 as the beginning of the year.
All of this is a reminder that the first of January really is an arbitrary date, chosen simply because one had to be chosen; yet, we tend to have a lot of expectations about this date, we call them resolutions, and they tend to fall to the wayside pretty quickly.
I suspect it is because January 1 is an arbitrary date and can not necessarily bear the weight of so much expectation. The Church has times that can bear such weight. We began our new year, as always, on the first Sunday of Advent, looking forwards and back. If you are looking to be transformed and to bring your resolutions to life, the Lenten Season is designed for just that purpose.
Does the first day of January have anything to offer us spiritually? I am not sure one should put too much significance on a date that a civil calendar uses to change from one year to the next, but perhaps it is the event signified that can teach us.
This beautiful little rock upon which exists every living thing, every man, woman and child who is living (excluding 6 astronauts currently on the international space station), or has ever lived, has made one orbit around her star. The beginning of a new orbit challenges us to embrace a global truth.
We truly are fellow passengers on this beautiful little rock hurling through the dark vastness of space. Perhaps this reminder, as we begin a new orbit together, might help us to be more gentle and kind with one another, to remember what it means for us to be one human race whose survival is bound to the command our Lord still gives us, “Love one another.”
This is the world that God still loves so much that He gave us His only Son, born so long ago onto this beautiful little rock and whose Spirit still moves upon its face as we sail through the stars.