As 2018 fades into the proverbial rear-view mirror, I am left to contemplate the past year as I do every year during this season. To contemplate the past year means something more to me than just to recollect my life’s learnings and misgivings, jovialness and stresses; it means a new beginning as I appreciate a past ending. One particular way I know how to contemplate this way is by observing the connection the Advent of Jesus Christ at Christmas has with the coming of the New Year.
To enlighten you, allow me to provide a brief background to the current calendar events of this particular season:*
Christmas Day–that is, the birth of Jesus Christ–is celebrated around the world between December 25 and January 7. Of course, any Google search to find out if December 25 is in fact the birthday of Christ will be a short one. The simple answer is no. So, why these times for Christmas? Well, there is some variability as to the reason.
One possibility is the traditional event of the Annunciation, observed by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This is the revelation of the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary that God’s Son would be conceived in her womb (see Luke 1:26-38). Traditionally, this is believed to have fallen on what is now March 25 (Gregorian Calendar). Nine months following is December 25. The other possible reason Christmas Day is December 25 has to do with a Christianizing of two rival pagan festivals of the Roman Empire that fell around the same time: “Saturnalia”–the celebration of the god Saturn (like the planet), who was believed to control wealth, abundance and even time, and “Sol Invictus”–the festival of the “Unconquered Sun,” that commemorated the birth of sun god Mithra.
The variability of what day on which Christmas falls is simply due to the calendar change from the Julian Calendar (adapted by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE) to the Gregorian Calendar (replaced by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582), which saw Christmas Day move from January 7 to December 25.
New Year’s Day–January 1st. This date remained unchanged by Pope Gregory. What Julius declared the start of each year was an observance of another Roman god, called Janus (where “January” gets its name), who was believed to be the god of gateways and beginnings. So for the Caesar, the start of each year recognized the one who brings new beginnings.
In reality, Pope Gregory’s objective in reforming the civil calendar was twofold: to align the calendar year’s timeline more accurately with the solar year (a little more than 365 days) and to set the time of Easter more accurately to the time set by the early Church. In light of this, it may seem inappropriate to link Christ’s birth with the New Year because truthfully the two were never intended to relate with the other. It may also seem inappropriate when one considers the cultural climate of Christ at His coming. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is commemorated a week before Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place to offer atonement sacrifices for the sins of the Israelite people (see Leviticus 16). In light of these two festivals, it makes perfect sense that a new year would usher in the atonement of God’s people. The equivalent for the Church would be if New Year’s Day fell just before Easter.
That all being said, the coming of Christ at Christmas can be regarded as the beginning of the beginning whose apex was revealed at Easter. Hebrews 10:19-23 tells us (New International Version):
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
With Christ as the new way by which we have been given access to God, we can identify Him as the One who truly brings new beginnings. The Advent of His coming must then resonate as the One who indeed ushers in the New Year (in place of the Janusian myth). Moreover, as each year comes to a close and we reflect on His Advent, we can reflect on how “through the curtain” (the temple curtain, or “gateway” to God) He would later end the “old year” (the Old Covenant), to start the “new year” (the New Covenant) (Matthew 27:51, Luke 23:45, Mark 15:38 cf. Exodus 26:33, Hebrews 9).
This, I think, is why the Advent of Christ can be considered as ushering in the New Year. The start of the beginning of something new was announced at the onset of Christ’s birth when Garbriel revealed to Joseph (Mary’s betrothed) that, “…he would save his people from their sins,” (Matthew 1:21, NIV). Of course, this was the eternal redemption that Hebrews 9 tells us about and for which we have eternal hope.
So, when I look back at the past year and look forward to a new one, I want to extol Christ for having started something new for all those who trust in Him. I want to keep in mind the old English phrase “auld lang syne”, or “days gone by,” and appreciate what standing I have with God because of the promise fulfilled at Christ’s coming. The days of seeking redemption have gone by, for Christ introduced a New Year. The days of guilt and shame have passed away because Christ introduced a new and living way through His blood. I can look back with assurance that the days of old have gone by and something new has started at Christ’s coming.
Thank God for the coming of Christ Jesus, for He has ushered in a New Year!