Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 14

A Good Beginning—The New Year

Jamie Cain

“Of a good beginning cometh a good end.”

–John Heywood, sixteenth century poet

01.  Introduction

Every year has a beginning. Without defined boundaries and a progression of some kind, any day (and every day) could be New Year’s Day. According to the boundaries of human time determined by the Julian calendar, a new year begins every January 1 at 12:01 a.m. And because the Julian calendar isn’t the only calendar in use, a number of other candidates for “new year’s day” exist.

If you’ve been reading along over the past year, you know that the church defines time’s boundaries and progression differently. The church doesn’t suspend or reject the calendar time that marks days and weeks and months, but early Christians decided to see time through the lens of Jesus’ life and death. In looking to God’s activity in the world to help them mark time, those Christians pushed against a polytheistic culture that defined time according to its own theology, an influence that remains today. (Many of our months still echo their Roman names, names of Roman deities, mostly. And the days of the week bear the names of the Germanic gods whose worshipers sacked Rome.)

While it might seem strange to talk about “new year” and beginnings in August, that’s exactly what we must do, as many Christians draw close now to the beginning of another “year of the Lord,” and others will shortly follow.

We must consider first, however, that as in so many things, the Eastern and Western church approach the beginning of the ecclesiastical year differently. We’ll look below at why the difference exists, as well as its impact on the ways Christians worship. And in considering the year’s beginning, we’ll see how understanding the way the year begins can prepare us for its good end.

02.  History of the New Year

Western Christians begin their liturgical year with Advent, which begins in 2022 on November 27. The four Sundays preceding Christmas mark the prophecies and promises that led to the birth of Jesus the Messiah. As I wrote in the inaugural essay of this collection, Christians began observing the period we now call Advent fairly early in church history, primarily as a time of preparation. Catechumens used the forty days to fast and learn about the faith before baptism and public proclamation of their faith.

The Eastern church continues to observe a time of fasting before Nativity—the Nativity Fast—while the Western church has turned its celebration of Advent toward reflection and worship related to messianic promises and their fulfillment in Jesus. (See “Watching for the Light” for more on Advent and the Nativity Fast.)

But the Eastern church begins its year on September 1. The primary reason is political, as the church was centralized in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. In the late third century, the indictio appeared as a five-year period for reassessing land tax. By the early fourth century, it standardized to a fifteen-year term, and by the end of the fourth century, the empire was using the indictio as a way of dating official documents.

The history is far more complicated than this, however, as the indictio was first assigned to late August, the 29th or 30th. But other indictio dates in the post-Byzantine world have included September 24, December 25, or even January 1. And an elaborate mathematical system can help determine which year of a the fourteen-year indiction period any year is.

Now you know why Byzantine sometimes means “intricately involved”!

While understanding this system is helpful to historians trying to date ancient documents, it doesn’t help us understand the value of beginning the ecclesiastical year on September 1. There are some traditional reasons for selecting this date. One example is the seventh century tradition that dates the creation of the world September 1, 5509 B.C. Another tradition says that Jesus declared the coming kingdom in the synagogue, with his reading of the scroll of Isaiah, on September 1.

03.  The Meaning of the New Year

Regardless of its origins, September 1 as the beginning the ecclesial year suggests some significance for spiritual formation. We’ll consider two: the coincidence with harvest and its proximity to the first Feast, the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos.

While modern calendars begin the year in the dead of winter, the Roman indictio associated the new year with harvest. This has a couple implications for the Christian celebrating the new year in September. First, the assessment of taxes assumes the blessing of harvest, after all, and the new year looks forward to the sowing of seed for future harvests. Similarly, the Christian gives thanks for the year before, the many blessings of God and the harvest of righteousness we see in our lives, while looking forward to God’s continued work in and through us in the coming year.

Second, by extension from association with the earth and its fruit, some observe in the new year the gift of creation and the command to care for it. Since 1989, when the Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople established September 1 as a “day of prayer for protection of the environment,” nearly all the branches of the Eastern Church (and even the Roman Catholic Church) have followed suit.

The second implication for spiritual formation following from September 1 is its proximity to the Nativity of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary. The Incarnation is the central event of the church calendar, but Eastern Christians pay special notice to the one they call Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” Mary’s special place in the Nativity and in the history of the church is captured in the church’s creeds, or statements of belief. Mary is the only non-divine person remembered in the two most ancient Christian creeds. In the Apostles Creed, we confess that we believe in “Jesus Christ . . . conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” In the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381 (which is commonly called the Nicene Creed), we confess that the “one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” Even the Quicumque Vult, sometimes called the Athanasian Creed and written down in the fifth or sixth centuries, explains that Jesus was “of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world.” All of these references to Mary, in other words, point very definitely to the birth of Jesus. She is the means of God’s incarnational action, the bearer of God into the world he made.

Some of this language is uncomfortable and difficult for Protestants. In order to remain true to the “mere Christianity” advocated by C.S. Lewis, it may be best at this point simply to note Mary’s example. That the Eastern church’s year celebrates its first great feast, the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, must certainly be an invitation to Christians to emulate Mary’s obedience and availability to God. After all, she is the first ambassador of the Good News of the Kingdom; she bears the Word into the world.

While most of us won’t hang up our hats and horns for January 1, we need the reminder that the new year belongs not to New York City or a television production company but to the God who made the world at the first, and who is making it anew in Jesus Christ. And if we pause on September 1 to make an offering of our harvests to our heavenly King, we can experience not only the joy of thanksgiving for God’s past faithfulness, but also the rich hope of a fruitful harvest in the year to come.

04.  Suggestions for Practice

  1. Set aside time on September 1 to give thanks for God’s faithful provision, and to pray for the year ahead. Consider this prayer, adapted from two hymns of the Eastern church:

    O God our Father, Creator of the universe, you created all things in your infinite wisdom, and you set the times by your own authority. Bless now the cycle of the coming year of your grace, O Lord. Bless our comings and goings throughout this year, and guide our works according to Your divine will. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

  1. Consider learning more about stewardship of the environment. Many print and video resources exist; you might begin with a book like Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship.
  1. Mary occupies a complicated and much contested place in redemptive history. Yet her example of obedience and faithfulness, her willingness to say yes to an astonishing vocation, ought to inspire and challenge us. Though little about her life is recorded in Scripture, a careful reading of Luke’s account of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38) can yield vital fruit. If you are unfamiliar with the practice of lectio divina, this short introduction can prepare you for a vibrant encounter with a very familiar story.

Footnotes

Ad Meskens, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Part 7 of 14
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Pentecost

Jamie Cain
September 22, 2021