Just as 2021 was drawing to a close, I read these lines in a terrific novel that takes place almost entirely on the day before New Year’s Eve:
The new year arrives, which of course never means as much as you hope unless you happen to sell calendars. One day becomes another, now becomes then. Winter spreads out across the town like a relative with slightly too much self-confidence….
Like much of Fredrik Backman’s quirky prose, these words made me laugh. He’s wrong, of course. But still I laughed.
Well, he’s not exactly wrong, I suppose. The new year begins on just another day. Sunrise, sunset, indistinguishable from the one before. And for many of us, this new year will not sustain the resolve we carried across its threshold. Our hoped-for changes will give way to the sameness of how we do things. No wonder winter spreads so bleakly.
But let’s set aside any pressure or expectations of the new year. Freed from that baggage, can we not agree that our ways of marking time are important? Magnificent, even? If every day did simply become the next, and “now” became “then” with no way to distinguish how long ago, or what day of the week, how bleak memory would be. History would be unthinkable, in the most literal sense.
It should therefore not surprise us that the marking of time was one of civilization’s earliest achievements.
The first grand discovery was time, the landscape of experience. Only by marking off months, weeks, and years, days and hours, minutes and seconds, would [hu]mankind be liberated from the cyclical monotony of nature.
Mapping time began with the heavens, based on movements of moon and sun that don’t translate precisely to hours and days except with innovations like “leap year” to make up for the failure of early calendars to keep dates in line with the seasons. The week is somewhat different—an artificial human construct.
Around the world, people have found at least fifteen different ways, in bunches of 5 to 10 days each, of clustering their days together. What is planet-wide is not any particular bouquet of days but the need and the desire to make some kind of bouquet. [Hu]mankind has revealed a potent, pressing desire to play with time, to make more of it than nature has made.
It’s hard to imagine going through time without a week. If one day followed another without the rhythm of weekday and weekend, everything would run together. Even if we work odd schedules that are not energized by words like “Thank God it’s Friday,” movement through the week, and the patterns we follow week by week—these markings matter.
When you press down through the history of the seven-day week, you come to the Old Testament, and through its history to Babylon, where our Jewish spiritual ancestors lived in exile at a time very influential in the development and editing of these ancient texts. The seven-day week appears in the opening words of our Bible, the creation story finalized through the experience of exile and dislocation in a foreign land. It should not surprise us that the exiles’ decades in Babylon would leave its residue in the Biblical writings and on the Jewish people after their return to the Holy Land. Both the seven-day week and the rituals surrounding the new year seem to have been influenced by that Babylonian sojourn.
And then, in turn, time ends up holding a particular relevance in our practice of faith. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasizes in his book The Sabbath that “Judaism is a religion of time.” He points out that the first thing to which the word qadosh, holy, was attached in the Hebrew Bible is not a place but time itself:
‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’ There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness. This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place—a holy mountain or a holy spring—whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.”
Christianity likewise. Consider the scriptures we have recently intoned—“This was…while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2.2) and “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,” and so on (Luke 3.1). The gospel writers situate our formative stories in time. As Hoyt Hickman puts it:
“Christianity takes time seriously. History is where God is made known. Christians have no knowledge of God without time, for it is through actual events happening in historical time that God is revealed. God chooses to make the divine nature and will known through events that take place within the same calendar that measures the daily lives of men and women…. For Christianity, the ultimate meanings of life are revealed not by universal, timeless statements but by concrete acts of God.”
And we in turn enact God’s presence and actions and gift of time through our Sabbath gatherings, and our practice of the Christian year.
The church…shows what is most important to its life by the way it keeps time…. [T]he use of time reveals priorities of faith and practice. Once answer to “What do Christians profess?” could be “Look how they keep time!”
Which brings me around again to Daniel Boorstin, who reminds us this action of timekeeping is inextricably connected to the ways we live life together:
Communities of time would bring the first communities of knowledge, ways to share discovery, a common frontier on the unknown.
Because if you aren’t following the same basic principles of timekeeping, it’s hard to share life together. Like adjoining towns that are separated by the line between Central and Mountain Time, the way we keep time forms us into communities of sorts.
This has all become rather esoteric. But it’s also powerful. Finding our place in time is one of our first questions upon awaking, or being awoken from a traumatic experience. Do we know what day it is? Living to witness the movement of the calendar from last year to the new one marks something real. A new year that will hold things stretches out ahead of us, for better or worse. Mistakes and surprises and joys and discoveries and hurts and losses and resurrections. Every year—indelibly marked (the important ones) with where they happened in time.
Which accounts for those stammered conversations about whether that thing happened last Tuesday, or was it that Monday. And when did we lose Aunt Jo? I think it was five years ago, no, six, no, I remember, it was the same year that this other thing happened, which means, omigosh, it was nine years ago now. Time is that way, for us all.
So, dear ones. The new year has arrived, with the glorious holiness that accompanies each day, each hour. One day gives way to another, and each day we are God’s. We are made new. The seasons spread out across the hills like God breathing creation yet again. And we will mark it as we always do, with joy and sadness, in our many communities that give it such meaning.