The new year always raises all kinds of thoughts, ideas and speculations. It is about looking back at the past; it is about hope or dread or faith in the future; it is about endings and beginnings; it is about time -- its inevitable and inexorable passage. Or not. The concept of time itself is fascinating. It is, we are told, the fourth dimension, though we usually aren't entirely sure what that means. At least I'm not, except that it must mean that when we measure length, width and depth the measurement isn't complete without the measurement of time as well. I don't really know what that would mean either.
The measurement of time as we lay people conceive of it is in many ways purely arbitrary. Although the earth will always take twenty-four hours to rotate on its axis and three hundred sixty-five and a quarter days (plus a few seconds -- or is it minus?) to go around the sun, the length and number of the hours and their division into minutes and seconds is our own invention. It was done with forethought, based on how easily divisible the numbers are. Twelve is divisible by three, four and six, twenty-four is evenly divisible by two, three, four, six, eight and twelve. Sixty adds five and ten to the list. And so our years last twelve months, our days last twenty-four hours, the hours are sixty minutes long, and the minutes last for sixty seconds. It's quite useful for organizing one's days, but nature takes no cognizance of it. That's why Daylight Savings Time has always seemed so silly to me, as well as being a twice-yearly inconvenience. The sun will rise when it rises and set when it sets whatever we name the time that it does it. The hours between sunrise and sunset will depend on the tilt of the earth's axis and will not change for our pleasure or need.
All that is pretty straightforward, but time is much more confusing than that, or so it seems. Mathematicians and physicists suggest that it is not really linear. It doesn't, they say, progress sturdily from past to present to future. That's just our perception. The amazing physicist Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time was based on that premise. No, I haven't read it. Just the reviews made it clear to me that I would never understand even the first paragraph. However, much of what we are told about these things seems highly speculative to me. Recently I read that mathematicians have identified several more dimensions. How do you identify something that you can't perceive? We love to speculate on what might go on in the infinite possible dimensions that might exist, but on what basis are they even posited? You can solve equations with big exponents, and solve them elegantly, but what is there to tell us that the solution is really true to physical reality?
One of the most delightful nonfiction books I ever read was Pi in the Sky by a British astronomer, John D. Barrow. That's P I pi, which is the relationship of the radius of a circle to its circumference. The purpose of the book was to investigate the question of whether or not higher mathematics actually bore any relation to the real world. His conclusion was that he believed it, but he couldn't prove it. That is where math and theoretical physics meet. The math cannot prove that the physical theories are true. I became a math agnostic long ago. Too much of it, it seems to me, is based on quite arbitrary definitions.
And none of it really matters, however entertaining it may be to speculate. Whatever the physicists and the mathematicians say, our perception of time is linear. It progresses in its steady pace, leaving the past behind with all its joys and pains, its creations and destructions, and bringing the future in its turn with its own version of the eternal vicissitudes of life.
The new year itself is pretty arbitrary. It wasn't made necessary by the forces of nature to establish January 1 as eleven days after the winter solstice, and other calendars have other beginnings. The Chinese New Year starts a couple of weeks after the western one, and the Jewish calendar begins in the fall. I have sometimes thought that spring, when life begins to renew itself after winter, might be a logical time to start the new year, but I suspect the reason for Rome's choice was that enough time had passed after the longest night to show that the sun was beginning its return, and so momentous an occasion was surely the start of the next cycle of darkness and light, birth and death, hope and fear.
The calendar itself is a combination of the arbitrary and the necessary. Lunar calendars are based on the phases of the moon and need to be tinkered with continually to make them conform to the rhythms of the year, but solar calendars need only occasional tinkering, since it is our relationship with the sun that establishes its parameters. The last change of significance was in the eighteenth century when we lost -- or perhaps gained, I'm never sure which -- three days. George Washington's birthday was affected by that. When we say that he was born on February twenty-second was that what he thought, or did he think he was born on the nineteenth -- or would it have been the twenty-fifth? Whatever, with leap years and rare few seconds adjustments, the calendar we use keeps pretty close to the movement of the earth around the sun and January first comes at the same time every year. And it's just like December thirty-first and not significantly different from January second.
Nevertheless, it makes all the difference. Whatever calendar you use in whatever part of the world, however you count the days, the turning of the year matters to us. We use this pause, this adding of another digit to the number of the year to reflect upon the past and fill ourselves with hope for the future. It is easy to say that 2008 was a terrible year, and good riddance to it. We lost so many of our icons: Odetta, George Carlin, Paul Newman, Solzenhitsyn, Edmund Hilary, the man who was known as "Deep Throat", and who thought Jesse Helms would ever die?; the list goes on and on. In our own congregation and in our individual lives the toll is enormous. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no clear goals and no end in sight wend their weary way. The economy tanked and the suffering caused by that is only beginning to be felt and understood, and the sharks are gathering. When I told one of the many who have called to offer unsolicited advice on how to deal with an unpayable mortgage that my payments were up-to-date he sounded almost incredulous. They call the church office as well, and, of course, we have not had and probably will not have a mortgage for some time. Computer generated calls have no discrimination.
We remember the sadness and the danger and rush 2008 off the stage, but it wasn't all bad. We had an election in the results of which the whole world rejoiced, and our own lives registered joys as well as sorrows. Babies were born, marriages were celebrated, triumphs were achieved. In our own congregation we finally began the building toward which we have been looking for three years and we cannot even begin to envision the changes we will see in our congregational life as a result. When the committees looked at their visions of the future this past year, all of them began, or at least implied, "When we have the new facility...." We lost many of our old friends, but we gained many new ones including our ministerial intern. In this complex, mottled world of ours pain is never without mitigation.
With the passing of the year, though we may be glad to see it go, we are reminded of the inexorable passage of time and the impermanence of our lives and all that we love. Not only are our own lives and those of the ones we love best short and fragile, but even the pyramids and Stonehenge, our monuments to permanence will one day be gone and forgotten. The human race itself may last for eons or destroy itself within a few generations, but it will at last be gone as the earth itself will be consumed by the sun or spin cold and barren when the sun itself is gone. So the new year meets us as a challenge. In the face of our own mortality, in the face of the mortality not just of ourselves but of all that is, how do we find purpose and meaning? How do we make our lives of value? And what does value mean in the light of this understanding? And there is so little time. The passage of time, the impermanence of all there is confronts us at the New Year in the very artificiality of its construction. In Andrew Marvel's words, "At my back I always hear/Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near." We have, in the light of eternity, so little time. As individuals it is less than an eyeblink.
Yet, even in this darkest time of year a light still shines and begins to grow, not just in the natural world but in ourselves. Hope dawns as it always dawns, and in our retrospection and introspection we can decide that the coming year will be better, that our lives will be better, that we ourselves will be better. We can give our lives purpose in these choices that we make for a better future for ourselves and for the world. We can choose a new beginning resolving that this year we will do an especially generous action, create something that will add beauty to the world, increase the incidence of justice, waste less of our resources and our time, love more, have more fun, and live deeply as if it really matters, because somehow -- who knows how? -- it does. Even in the light of impermanence, of the realization that nothing lasts forever, shaping today and tomorrow into beauty is our purpose.
One of the things we need in order to do that, though, is to take care of the past as well as looking to the future. The genius of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is that it is preceded ten days before by the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In every celebration of the New Year, in every culture, there is the reminder that the past is past and that there can always be a new beginning. In the Jewish faith, however, there is the vital teaching that merely changing the number of the year, turning over a page in the calendar, is not enough. The past, its errors, weaknesses and sins must be remembered and put behind us in a real way, and resolutions for the new year must be based on a solid foundation of resolve. We must somehow attempt to redeem the sins and follies of the past in our own lives. We must forgive and be forgiven. We must even forgive ourselves, and that is sometimes the most difficult thing of all.
Only then can we go forward in our high resolve to make of our lives something better, to make the world a better place. But we must not resolve too much. Sometimes in our hope for amendment we try for perfection. Sometimes in our hope for the world we give way to despair when amelioration escapes us. We are still small and finite. Our time is short; our powers are limited. We can content ourselves with little things: more laughter, one act of generosity, one failing overcome, one child made happy, one life -- even perhaps our own -- less barren. It is enough. There is little time.
So again this year in celebration of a new beginning we will symbolically put the unhappy past behind us in the ritual of the burning.