Sunday, January 06, 2013

Why Is THIS New Year?

These explorations were first offered during the January 6th, 2013 services at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA.

Sermonic Exploration #1:  Why Is This The Beginning of the New Year?  (Erik Walker Wikstrom)

According to the Roman historians Plutarch and Macrobius, it was King Numa Pompilius, in about 700 BCE, who put the Roman calendar into something very much like the January to December order we now know.  January – in the Latin “Janarius” – was named after the God Janus, the two-faced God who looked backward into the past and forward into the future.  He was sometimes called “the Doorway God,” as he was the God of transitions, beginnings and endings, and, so, thresholds of all sorts – including doorways. And, so, it made sense to put his month at the beginning of the year, and that made January 1st the beginning of the year. 
But as the story earlier reminded us, in case we’d forgotten, that hasn’t always been so nor even is it so in all places today.  In much of what we might call the Christianized Western cultures the new year began on March 25th – the day the church celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation.  This is the celebration of the coming of the Angel Gabriel to Mary to tell her that she was pregnant.  Since this could be seen, for all intents and purposes, as the date of the conception of Jesus it seemed like a good time from which to start counting the new year. 
At one time or another, the Middle Ages saw March 1st, and Easter, and September 1st, and December 25th each as a recognized “start date” for the new year.  It wasn’t until Pope Gregory XIII established what has come to be called the Gregorian calendar did January 1st become the “official” kick-off of the Western world.  And even then places like Scotland didn’t sign up until the 1600s, and England and Wales didn’t join the singing of Auld Lang Syne with the rest of Western civilization until 1751.
(Actually, that’s not technically “really real and truly true” because Robert Burns didn’t even write the poem Auld Lang Syne until 1788, but you know what I mean.   And for those who are interested, “auld lang syne” would translate literally from the Scottish as, “old long since,” or “a long time ago.”  Since the chorus has it as “for auld lang syne” it should probably be read as “for the sake of the good old days.”  Should old acquaintance be forgot?  And never brought to mind?  Well, for the sake of the good old days we’ll take a cup of kindness yet for the sake of the good old days.  Something like that.)
Anyway, that’s the history, in a nutshell, of January 1st’s claim to being the beginning of the year.  And this is just the story with a Western bias.  In China the new year falls on the new moon of the first lunar month, about four to eight weeks before spring.  In Iran it falls on the day containing the exact moment of the vernal equinox, which usually occurs on March 20th  or 21st, and which is the beginning of spring.  For the Kutch people in Western India the new year begins when the rains come, usually sometime between June 22nd and the 22nd of July.  And as we noted earlier, for Jews the “head of the year” is Rosh Hashanah (which literally means “head of the year”) and which usually comes relatively early in the fall; and for many neo-pagans it’s Samhain, which falls on October 31st.    As Western civilization spread its influence, the Gregorian calendar and its starting date spread as well.  But Greece didn’t come on board until 1923, and Thailand didn’t adopt January 1st as the date of the beginning of a new year until 1941.   
Okay . . . so there’s a whole lot more than you probably wanted to know about the question “why is this the beginning of the year?”  At least, that was a whole lot more “factoids” than anyone needs to know, but “facts” don’t tell us everything.  Especially about the Big Things.  About the Big Things facts often tell us very little.
So the question still remains, why is this the beginning of the year?
And the answer is – the really real, truly true answer – is that it’s not.  Just as Rhea discovered in our story, and as most of us know where it really matters, each and every moment of each and every day has the potential of being “the beginning” for us.  Any day, every day, bears with it the possibility of being the doorway to the new.
This day – or, actually, that day, January 1st – is the beginning of the new year because we want . . . maybe because we need some day to be.  In a moment we’re going to sing a hymn that begins, “The ceaseless flow of endless time no one can check or stay.”  But except for the fact that it’d really throw off the rhyme scheme of the British Unitarian minister John Andrew Storey’s poem, I’d suggest that instead of that we sing, “The ceaseless flow of endless time no one could ever stand . . .”
That’s right, isn’t it?  The “ceaseless flow of endless time” from one day to the next, one week to the next, one month to the next, on and on and on through the all the decades of our lives . . .well it’s stultifying, isn’t it?  I can barely grasp the concept of the end of the week, sometimes not even the end of the day – to be honest, sometimes not even the end of a particularly long thought!  If I didn’t have some way to cut it down into manageable, bite-sized pieces I think I’d go bonkers.  I need there to be the end of one year and the beginning of the next if only so that I can have the psychological comfort that comes from the delusion that I can now put all of that behind me.  Right?  I mean, you know what I’m talking about, right?
You probably won’t find this in any book out there, but I think the reason that we humans have concocted this whole “new years day” thing is because the enormity of time scares the bejesus out of us.  (Just like the enormity of the cosmos scares the bejesus out of us so that we had to make earth the center of the universe.  And then our galaxy the center of the universe.  And then our universe the center of the multiverse.  And . . .)  Out There is so big.  Life is so big.  We need . . . something . . . to reign in all that Bigness . . . just a little bit . . . just so that it’s not so scary.  So that we can get out of bed in the mornings.
But we’re Unitarian Universalists, right?  This is the twenty-first century, right?  (As if either of those things mean we don’t have the same primal needs as our most ancient ancestors, right?)  Well . . . one of the things that I’ve learned on my “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is that sometimes facing the things that scare me is a good thing.  Especially if I want to grow.
So rather than safely accept the societally affirmed perspective that there’s a fixed cycle of time called a “year” with a particular set starting point, let’s get a little edgier and remind ourselves that time is a fluid thing.  It spirals and loops ‘round on itself rather than progressing linearly, and it has less to do with days on a calendar than experiences in a life.  Perhaps from the perspective of our own faith development, at least, we should think not so much of “years” but of “chapters,” and should note the beginning of a chapter whenever a chapter rightfully begins. 
Some of these chapters might last, then, for years at a time.  Others might be done in a day or two.  Some of them we won’t recognize until decades later, if at all.  Others we will live our way towards with intentionality and determination.
But may I encourage us to resist looking to this date or that date on the calendar as if it had magic in it.  There’s a passage by Frederich Buechner that I’ve always loved.  It’s from his book Alphabet of Grace.  It goes like this:
“You are alive. It needn't have been so. It wasn't so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is so now. And what is it like: to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.  It is your birthday and there are many presents to open.  The world is to open.”
As we move on from our societal celebration of the so-called start of the new year, may our eyes be open enough to glimpse all the birthdays, all the New Years, that are ahead of us.  And may each of us continue to – and, perhaps, to continuously – find new ways to open the world.

Sermonic Exploration #2:  My Truly-True and Really-Real (Cathy Finn-Derecki)

I just joined Weight Watchers. This is not my natural resting weight, and I want to slough off some bad habits and feel better. And, yes. There IS something about January 1, the new year, that makes me want to dust up the old Underwood, pull out the onion skin and carbon paper, put that pencil behind my ear, and really get the ending right this time. At the end of this year well-planned and well-executed, the credits will roll, I’ll take my bows, thank the academy, and bring the statuette home, along with my lifetime Weight Watchers membership.
There are so many times in life when we are tempted to freeze things into a perfect tableau, a construct, dress it up, throw a budget at it, pick a venue, buy a ticket, invite a crowd, write a speech, mark a moment as significant, drop a ball from Times Square and break out the noisemakers. Some of us live for that huge wedding, that big game, our first house, that milestone we’ve all been told is on the map of our life. Into whatever shape, all of us seem to have some sort of need to willfully sculpt our own story, punctuating it with dramatic moments -- and the Gregorian calendar (or the Mayan, every 2012 years or so) can be one heck of a framework to build that narrative on.
Until it’s not.
I got permission from a friend to tell a little of her story. She was the kind of person who, from a young age, felt she was born for greatness. Two early marriages made her feel hemmed in, and she longed to spread her wings. She spent her twenties awkwardly escaping convention, and alcohol made that possible. It quieted her conscience, lifted inhibitions, kept her company, made her feel better about herself. It was the thing that could help her break outside of her strict Catholic upbringing.
The details that follow are not particularly distinctive. There were dangerous nights on the subway when she passed out and did not remember getting home. There was the weight loss, at first glamorous, then skeletal. There were the inscrutable lies piled on top of lies to get out of work, forgotten dates, neglected responsibilities. There were increasing gaps in her memory. Her destiny for greatness seemed to recede behind the importance of which liquor store was still open at that hour of the night, how much cash she had on her to buy it, the next time she could drink, and better still, drink alone.

One morning in early January, in her mid-30s, she woke up in her apartment shaking, sweating, wearing the coat from the night before buttoned up to her neck, not remembering how she got home the night before. Nothing remarkable happened that morning or the night before. This was by no means the worst morning she had ever had.
But from somewhere, a voice whispered inside of her saying, “It’s over. It’s done.” She has never known just how that happened. She had thought that sobriety would be one of those white-light experiences, or some tawdry 90-day rehab reality show, or something really over the top like Susan Hayward in “I’ll Cry Tomorrow!” Something with panache, drama, purpose, NARRATIVE. But this new year of her life dawned 6 days after her now no longer remembered New Year’s Day, in obscurity, carried by a whisper inside her, in her tiny inconsequential apartment, carried from invisible forces unknown to her.
She speaks of that time using the language of sobriety: It was her spiritual awakening. In a UU church, this idea of a humble surrender may sound quaint, and vaguely reminiscent of the traditional religions many of us escaped. After all, I didn’t come crawling into Unitarian Universalism on my knees. I walked in with a fresh library of heretical books, my own spiritual narrative (double-spaced), the battle scars from 12 years of Catholic school, lofty goals of building a personal theology, driven to rise above the cookie-cutter Christian convention of my epoch and upbringing and to get this really-real-and-truly-true thing DOWN!
Then I think of my friend, who is now a kind mother and respected woman with a destiny that is deeply meaningful, but nothing that will ever make the entertainment section, or earn her an award. Her creed did not have to be forged by will. Rather, it floated to her on a whisper.
I am humbled when I think of the simplicity of her moment. But this humbling does not stop me from trying, on a daily basis, to rebuild my life into a compelling narrative of my choosing. Around my 35th birthday, I read Carl Jung’s “Man and his Symbols” where he talks about 35 being the center of life. I planned to do something profound on that day. I was reading the Village Voice and saw an ad for a flotation tank center. I don’t know if any of you saw the movie “Altered States,” but a flotation tank is a completely darkened room where you are suspended in a salt water tank. Some people call it a sensory deprivation chamber. I spent the evening of my 35th birthday submerged in a flotation tank, thinking it would somehow transform me.
I have to say it WAS cool. I had all kinds of flying-through-space hallucinations without the benefit of any chemicals. I walked out feeling like I had released just about every endorphin I had – like running a marathon without the pain or effort. But, I may as well have gone to a movie for all the personal insight I got out of it.
The fact is, Carl Jung’s genius aside, the milestones of the year seem artificially imposed. The high-impact events of my life have happened annoyingly off-schedule with no plans and no witnesses: Holding my mothers hand while lying in bed next to her in her last days, singing to my father at his bedside in the hospital, watching my son’s wide eyes as he took his first step towards me, seeing my daughter laughing with abandon while playing on the trampoline during her first days with us, looking at my husband’s smile as he surprised me with a bunch of yellow roses for no reason at all.
Those moments, where the idea of “me” becomes so very small, weave a narrative that, with all my good intentions, I simply cannot craft. These are my “whisper” moments, reminding me to be willing to listen and respond to the beauty of life as it comes to us from unexpected places.
It is my hope that you too, that each of us, will open ourselves to the possibility that WILLINGNESS may serve us better in the long run than our well-practiced, well-intentioned WILLFULNESS. I truly pray that today I am not so busy planning my year, counting my points, solidifying my beliefs, doing my life, that I cannot hear the new year that may one day, with no preparation on my part, quietly beckon me down a road I have not yet mapped – the one leading me to the destiny that IS truly true, and really real. 

These explorations were preceded, earlier in the service, by this Story for All Ages:

The Really Real, Truly True Story of the New Year (Erik Walker Wikstrom)
Not that long ago, and not all that far away, there was a little girl who wanted to know when the year began. Now, because she was that kind of little girl – and you probably know this kind of child – she didn’t just want to know when people thought the new year began. She wanted to know what was really real and truly true.

So she went to her mom – a generally reliable source of information that’s really real and truly true. “Mom,” she asked, “when does the year begin?”

“Why January 1st, you silly goose,” her mom replied. “We celebrated it just the other day. Out with the old and in with the new!”

This made sense – parents almost always make sense, you know – but then she remembered that at her church they celebrated Chinese New Year at the end of January or even the beginning of February! (Churches often confuse things, don’t they?)
So this little girl – whose name was Rhea, in case you’re curious – decided to go and ask some other people.

The first person she asked was a friend’s father. She said, “Do you know when the year starts? Not just when people say it starts but when it does start for really real and truly true?”

“Well,” the father said, “people usually say that the new year starts on January 1st, but as a teacher I can tell you that it really starts in September when everybody goes back to school.”

This also made sense to Rhea – teachers usually make sense too, you know – but then she remembered that at her church they said that there are lots of places that celebrate the start of the new year in spring, when people traditionally started their planting. (More confusion, right?)

So Rhea decided that since it was church that was confusing her she’d talk with someone at church. She started with the senior minister. He said that there were different times that different people throughout the world have thought were the beginning of the year, and that even some of the same people had thought that different times were the beginning of the year at different points in their history. He talked about things like the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashanah in early fall; and the Hindu light festival, Diwali, in early December; and the Wiccan holy day of Samhain that most people call “halloween.” And each of these, he said, and lots of other days too, had been thought by someone at some time to be the beginning of the year. Well . . . that wasn’t a lot of help for her in her quest for what was really real, was it?

So Rhea decided to talk with one of the elders of the church. Those folks knew just about everything, and they’d been around long enough to know the difference between what people said was true and what really was truly true. So she went up to one of the women in the church who was over ninety years old! “Do you know when the new year begins?” she asked. “Well,” the woman replied, “by my age I’ve come to think of the new year as starting each year on my birthday.”

Well that made a lot of sense. But then she thought that that would mean that everybody had their own year, each one starting at a different time. Her year would begin on her birthday, but her mom’s year would begin a few months later on her mom’s birthday, and her best friend’s year would begin almost half a year later.

Then Rhea had a wild thought. What if the new year began not on some particular date on the calendar? What if it could begin on any day of the year? Any day when something incredible super wonderful happened? Or what if it could begin on every day of the year? What if every day was a chance to start fresh?

As Rhea went to bed that night she realized that although she hadn’t heard anybody say this, she knew it was really real and truly true. Each and every day was a kind of new years’ day; each and every day was the beginning of something new.

Print this post

1 comment:

Pete Armetta said...

I haven't thought about flotation tanks in a long time, and was a proponent of them in a past life (my twenties and thirties). Maybe the isolation complemented the isolation I actually feel and put me in sync? I don't know but it did me some good so it was nice to read and think about them again.

For me this time of year, the calendar new year, is when I begin the countdown to spring. I guess now there are 70ish days or so. I get more precise and more urgent as we get closer. I do think the new year starts whenever we feel new. I mean when we feel we've overcome and outgrown and can shrug off obstacles and challenges and its time to move into a new chapter, with new energy. If one does think about or experience such things that is.

For me that time is Spring and I just learned I have something in common with the Iranians. :) Every day I'm in a position where I have to think of life as a new beginning (for better/worse) however Spring is when the universe and all its trappings seems to do the same. So it gets me in sync and in harmony.

Sorry I missed you guys do this "live", you're my favorite team!