The year of our Lord

So long, 2011.  Hello, 2012.  Here’s one of the quirkier bits of news from last year’s end: in the Independent State of Samoa, a whole day vanished.  Residents went to sleep on Thursday, December 29th, and awoke to Saturday morning the 31st.  Friday the 3oth never happened.

It wasn’t the result of some mysterious time warp, but something much more pedestrian.  Prior to 1892, Samoa was west of the International Date Line.  Wanting to be synchronous with the United States and Europe as trading partners, Samoans redefined themselves as east of the date line.  The present reality, however, is that they do more business with their neighbors to their immediate west, including Australia and New Zealand.  For purely practical reasons, therefore, they’re changing back: Samoa is once more on the western side of the line, and globes and maps will have to be modified accordingly.

Such is the taken-for-granted yet slippery nature of our concept of time.  There are some relatively fixed reference points for how we track time: the rotation of the earth, or its revolution around the sun.  We do, after all, have a leap year ahead of us, a means of making sure we don’t get too far out of step with these temporal markers.

But we can thank Samoa for reminding us that, in some ways, our sense of time is what we make of it, a human construction.

There’s something about the start of a new year that conveys a sense of fresh possibility.  In that hope, we resolve to behave differently, using the theme of newness to bolster our commitment to getting back on track.  Imagine how many of us ended 2011 saying, “Looks like I gained weight over the holidays again…  New Year’s Eve will have to be the last day that I get to eat whatever I want.  Then, as soon as January rolls around, it’s back to the gym for me!”  Well, all right, at least I ended the year saying that.  Funny how resolutions can work that way.  The promise of discipline tomorrow, or next month, or next year, implies permission for the lack thereof today.

But this year, New Year’s Day was also the Sabbath.  And in terms of our sense of time, that fact could or should be far more significant.

I don’t mean Sabbath as a mere religious obligation, as if we had to tithe one day a week to God while keeping the others for ourselves.  Nor, as writers from Eugene Peterson to Abraham Heschel have observed, is Sabbath simply a matter of taking time off from our work to get our mental and physical strength back.  It may have that effect, but that is not its purpose.

Rather, amidst all the pressures of a time-starved and time-dominated way of living, of being ruled by clocks and calendars, of believing that somehow it is our work that makes us who we are, Sabbath-keeping is empowered by the countercultural declaration that time itself belongs to God.

We need that regular, continual reminder.  In many ways, 2011 was no picnic.  From economic crises to natural disasters–so-called “acts of God”!–headlines around the globe were filled with trouble and tragedy.  We’ve seen one of the most contentious years ever for American politics.  And then there are the personal and family difficulties…the list goes on.

Where was God in the midst of all of that?

I don’t mean to shrug off the question.  But I have to wonder to what extent it comes from having our sense of time and story upside-down theologically.  I have my calendar, my timetable, my plan, more or less faithfully executed, and expect somehow that God will enter into it.  If things go awry, I ask where God went.

But what if time itself belongs to God and not to us?  What if our unfolding history really is, as the old saw goes, not simply what we make of it, but “his-story”?  What would change about the way we look at our calendars and schedules?

To be sure, we still have practical decisions to make and schedules to keep.  And there’s nothing wrong with making New Year’s resolutions.  If changing the final digit on “2011” is enough motivation to do something we should have done anyway, why not?  But it’s better, I think, to begin with this: however difficult AD 2011 may have been, it was still Anno Domini, the year of our Lord.

So, welcome 2012, and a Happy New Year to all.  Just remember, there’s no magic to the changing of the year itself.  That’s just one more turn of the wheel.  What really matters is that it’s the year of our Lord, as is every year.  And he has already made all things new.