New Year

We'll probably go over to a friend's house for half an hour and drop in on the parish get-together to say "Hi!" I don't know if we'll stay up till midnight. We do have a small bottle of apple ice-wine to sip on, if we manage to stay awake that long, but it's not really such a big deal, this particular New Year's Eve.

There are boundaries and anniversaries that really do mark a Something: birthdays, wedding anniversaries, dates of deaths that mattered to us. Something happened, and on this day we remember what the Something was, celebrating it or mourning it as appropriate. These are like features of the natural landscape, mountain ridges or estuaries: they have a solid reality about them. There are other dates that we've agreed to stamp on the calendar as Significant: Christmas, Easter, Remembrance Day, Martin Luther King Day, Mother's Day. They too have a reality, because we've agreed to assign significant events or people to them.

But there are boundaries and anniversaries that are purely our own invention. There is no real reason why the nearby boundary between the U.S. and Canada should run along a certain line right in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. The river doesn't give a hoot; nor do its inhabitants, nor the birds in the air. The people who were here first never saw a boundary running through that water. It's all of our own making.

And the same goes for this millennium business. Our Christian year-counting is the invention of a 6th-century cleric, Dionysius Exiguus or Dennis the Little, and while he was a good and honest man, he got his starting date for the BC/AD business wrong. Not his fault, but there we are. We're not all that certain when Christ was actually born, but it probably wasn't either 1 BC or 1 AD. (Of course there is no Year 0 because they didn't have zeros in Dionysius's day. Zero came later.) So this is not the 2000th anniversary of the birth of our Lord and Saviour. That probably happened a few years back. The purists would say that this isn't the millennium at all (that missing year 0); the millennium is really Dec. 31, 2000. Nobody seems to be listening to them.

While it isn't the blowout some promoters were hoping for, it's still a fairly big deal for most people--and not only the ones half-hoping for, half-dreading, major or minor apocalypses. Time-markers matter to us. We need to count days and sort them into weeks and months, count years and organize them into decades and centuries and millennia because we need, for our own purposes, to have some sort of chronological framework just as we need to have one side of the St. Lawrence be Canada-not-U.S. and the other side be U.S.-not-Canada. It's a functional necessity, even if it doesn't reflect any natural reality. We are creatures in time and space, and it helps us both practically and psychologically to be able to speak of "this century, this year, this month, this millennium."

But God's time is quite another matter. We don't know about God's time. There's at least a fair chance that it runs in two directions, not just one, forward and back like a bead on a string. Who knows if it's in more than two dimensions? Maybe God's time stands still sometimes. Maybe it dances, bending, contracting, expanding, playing among the galaxies, putting the space-time continuum in a twist. Maybe time is so totally irrelevant to God that we can forget time ever existed. (I doubt that, somehow: time is too neat and fascinating for that.) I am quite certain that Isaac Watts had it wrong when he wrote "A thousand ages in Thy sight/ Are like an evening gone." That's much too simple. I think God's time is going to be far more complicated and mysterious than a simple 1000 age/1 evening ratio. I expect it to be in colours that we humans haven't even thought of yet.

But in this life we live in one-way straightforward time that we need to mark off, like inch-marks on a ruler, always moving forward, never circling back to where we'd like to be. And tonight is by the calendar Dionysus Exiguus set going, a biggie: the year 2000. Everybody's set up with champagne and fireworks, and the parties are going to be spectacular.

Maybe the significance of the year-change lies in the fact that it brings us all together, gets millions of people focusing joyfully on the same thing--and for a moment, perhaps, the wars will be at least a little quieted and the barriers between us will be lowered. Celebrating this millennial new year may be objectively silly, but if it gives people a sense of freshness and hope, and gets them out slapping the shoulders of perfect strangers and whooping it up with joy in their hearts, it's well worth it.

In a little while the millennium dateline--1999 on one side of it, 2000 on the other--will run up my street and swiftly cross my driveway. It will sweep over the back field, leaving no mark on the new snow, not ruffling the half-frozen creek nor startling my outdoor cat, and head west toward the next village, past the train track crossing and the butcher's shop. If the boundary's an artificial one, it does represent something real: the swift unfelt turn of a world that feels rock-steady under my feet, the swoop of celestial bodies in relation to each other. The timeline reaches back to the community of saints in Nero's time and reaches forward to the unknown places and people to which faith will take us in the next fresh year.

So yes, I guess the new year means something. Now, to open that apple ice wine and get out the good sherry glasses....

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 1 Jan 2000
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