By Dane Neufeld

New Year’s Eve offers a window into the overlapping but often divergent interests of the Church calendar and the secular calendar. While today is technically the feast of St. Sylvester, the second-to-last day of the Christmas Octave, even devout liturgical Christians will probably feel more emotional and cultural affinity for New Year’s Eve. Though the Christian year comes to a close just before the beginning of Advent, our sense of the year end is really generally anchored to December 31.

Christians have engaged this day variously throughout our history. Apparently, Church fathers like Augustine were also worried about the excessive drinking and carousing that often attended these celebrations. Days of penitence and fasting were observed early on in the Church’s life, before the Christmas Octave was more formally observed in the early middle ages. These penitential practices were designed not just as a restraint on debauchery but also on the idolatry practiced in the late Roman society.

The turning of the New Year is an event that belongs to all people and cultures, and for that reason it has not always been easy for Christians to calibrate our celebrations. Even today there is a spirituality about the end of the year and beginning of something new that seems to grip people in a particular way. It is not obvious what exactly it is that we celebrate on New Year’s Eve. Are we genuinely happy that another year has come and gone? Are we celebrating because we are still alive, though one year older? When we count down to midnight, do we really expect something exciting to happen, something new to be born, some novel possibility to open up before us?

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It is possible that as traditional Christian practice has waned, along with the various markings of the passage of time embedded in our Church calendar, expectations of New Year’s Eve have grown in our culture. It remains a tangible moment in which something shifts in the course of time, the year turns over, the numbers change. For a few days it is exciting to say 2022 or 2023, and the age-old joke — “see you next year” — seems to suggest a kind of passage into a new reality that might seem distant, but is in fact very immediate, only days or hours away.

The cultural hope that the next year will be better than the last is not clearly anchored to any recognizable power or form. The disappointments of failed resolutions or the sense that the world might be turning worse and not better, is as much a part of the atmosphere of one year ending and another beginning. The threshold between the years does mark some kind of mystery, and to stand on one side of the threshold, as we do on New Year’s Eve, is to draw near to a deeper power that is marked by transition, between light and darkness, life and death, renewal and decline, faith and despair.

In this way New Year’s Eve is not just a cultural construct that manufactures emotional and psychological tropes, but neither is it on its own a sufficient symbol of the deeper reality in which it participates. It is not really clear what we celebrate on New Year’s Eve, aside from enjoying an occasion to be together with friends and family and have a good time, but there is a sense that something almost hallowed or worthy of reverence is taking place.

Maybe the Moravian and Methodist tradition of the “watch night” strikes the right chord in marking and approaching the gravity of the moment, while drawing it into the larger setting of the gospel. The watch night vigil is traditionally a candlelight gathering, during which scripture is read, prayers are said, and hymns are sung. The year that is gone and the year to come are contemplated in the light of Christ, and the gospel admonition to keep watch, to stay alert and vigilant, are observed and placed before the worshipers as the guiding disposition on New Year’s Eve. For Wesley, the watch night began with the covenant renewal, the renewal of one’s commitment to God for the year to come, whatever time or circumstance might bring to the believer or the community.

Such seriousness would not need to preclude a little merry making, but it seems fitting that the heart of the great transition between one year and the next would be marked by something more than vague optimism or empty celebration. Our calling in Christ — “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13) — does not entail a denial of the past, but to see that in some sense it is now lost. What we have forgotten and the little that we remember has slipped from our control and now rests entirely in God’s hands to sift and gather as he sees fit. We do not forget in order to repudiate or escape our history, but to focus what remains of our time and attention on our calling to seek the Lord in all that we do.

Paul writes, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). As yet another year recedes into the past, we are reminded that our days are limited in number and that our window is narrowing toward an inevitable end. Though this reality can disturb deep anxieties and fears within us, we know that all that is lost will grow dark in the light of Christ, as we draw nearer to him, both in his suffering and resurrection. In joyful hope, Paul “pressed on” into the acceleration of time toward its end in Christ, “who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). For Christians, it is in this spirit that we can wholeheartedly celebrate the passing of time, mindful of our losses, but confident of what we hope to gain.

At Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation, God’s becoming flesh and inhabiting the limitations and the created purposes of time. With the Christ child as our guide, we can move with confidence through the course of lives, trusting that the even the vicissitudes and perplexities of aging are ones that God has indwelled and hallowed with his presence.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the incumbent of St. James, Calgary.

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