Historically, different peoples and cultures have marked the passing of the year on many different dates and with many different customs. Our preoccupation with the computing of time, the movements of the sun and the moon, the changing of the seasons, and the repetitive cycle of years, however, has been universal. Whether celebrated in spring, summer, autumn, or (as we do) in the dead of winter, the end of an old year and the start of a new one have universally been seen as a special moment in time, when past and future meet. Before anyone ever exchanged Christmas presents, people were giving each other New Year’s gifts. The Chinese even had New Year’s greeting cards – over a thousand years ago.
Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years – our preoccupation with time is itself apparently timeless. It may be one of our most distinctly human traits, since one of the earliest things that human beings became aware of must have been our own mortality – the fact that we live and we die in a set period of time. Time is truly precious - precisely perhaps because we have just a limited amount of it.
Of course, most of that time is what we might call “Ordinary time” – the day-to-day routine of work and personal life, punctuated by those special moments, the highs and lows of life, most of which happen when they happen, not particularly according to any calendar. Yet the calendar is always there, and never more obviously than on this day, when the simple act of changing the date makes us stop and think about what, if anything, it all means.
In 2013 Immaculate Conception Parish completed 155 years as the City of Knoxville’s oldest Catholic parish, still serving this community, still bringing the light of Christ and the good news of God’s kingdom to the heart of this city. A church is a special place that reveals its purpose by the way it is built and how it is furnished and adorned. So this past summer we undertook the replacement of the Church’s ceiling and the cleaning and highlighting of our three historic ceiling paintings. Meanwhile, our Parish “Town Hall” meeting in October, our parish has begun a new period of reflection on our mission in today’s world. A basic framework for our continued reflections in this new year will inevitably be Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"). I encourage anyone who can to take time to read “The Joy of the Gospel” as we enter the new year.
If history has taught us anything, of course, it has taught us the fragility of some of so many of the things we are tempted to pin our hopes on. For all our holiday cheer, many of us may be marking the end of another very difficult and challenging year of economic and personal struggles by looking ahead to 2014 with more than a little anxiety. All over the world, people are beginning a new year with worries and anxieties about basic, important things – the world economy, far away wars and close-to-home violence, and, of course, the perennial worries about one’s job, one’s health, one’s family, in other words the future. It’s not for nothing, after all, that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
New Year’s – especially the run-up to the end of the old year – lends itself to both nostalgic and serious reflections both about the state of the world and about one’s own life, about where one has been so far and where one may be going in whatever time may yet be allotted. But New Year’s, as George Burns’ comical comment reminds us, is, by definition, something new, a gift freely given us that offers an opportunity for hope. Like George Burns, we want to believe that things may be better in this new year, better for ourselves, better for the world.
“In the heart of every man and woman,” Pope Francis has written in his New Year’s Message, “is the desire for a full life” [2014 World Day of Peace Message]. Hope is, I think, everyone’s response to that universal human desire. Hope keeps us from giving in to discouragement and sustains us in times of difficulty. Hope takes us out of ourselves and unites us with others.
Our hope – the hope that brings us here to this church today – is founded on Jesus Christ, whose birth some 20 centuries ago is the very basis for the calendar we are so conscious of today. In an 1870 Christmas sermon, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, said: “In the creation God made man like Himself. In the Incarnation, God made Himself like man. … Christ is our brother whom we can approach with feelings of confidence and affection. … The invisible became visible. God became Man. … The Almighty God a helpless infant. O folly of Divine Love, thus to stoop and win human hearts.”The birth of Christ – to a particular mother, part of a particular nation, in a particular place, at a particular time in human history - has realigned all of time and given all of human history a new significance. The birth of Christ – to that particular mother, part of that particular nation, in that particular place, at that particular time in human history - has offered us a new hope for a future which we would never otherwise have imagined.
By becoming part of our time, God has turned our limited time on earth into a time of unlimited opportunity. So today he invites us to receive this new year – this year of our Lord 2014 – with gratitude as his gift and to enter into it with the joy and hope that counts as one of God’s greatest Christmas gifts to us.
Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 1, 2014