Why is it 2011? (or) Why New Years is Not Simply Secular

It is New Year’s Eve and everywhere throughout the world celebrations are planned as the New Year 2011 is upon us. You can be sure that large signs will flash “2011!!!” and “Happy New Year!” But why is New Year’s January 1st and why do we call this 2011? Time, and our understanding of our place in it are mysterious and historically complex, but many answers to how we designate time in the western world are very Catholic and Christian. And, although most consider New Years to be a very secular holiday I would like to explore the religious roots as well, for they are many. I blogged on this a bit last year so you may find some of these reflections familiar but I have also updated them a bit to reflect some of the comments you made last year. So let’s just reflect a bit on time which is so significant for us tonight and tomorrow.

  1. Why is this year designated 2011? It is clear that the world and human history stretch back much farther than that 2,010 years. What we are announcing this year is that it is 2011 Anno Domini(usually abbreviated A.D. and meaning “the year of the Lord). What this most clearly means is that it is 2,011 years since the Birthof Jesus Christ. Christ at his birth and through his passion, death and resurrection ushered in a new era for the world. The Christian West acknowledged this fact quite radically by resetting the calendars. As far as we know, the AD system was developed by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus in Rome in 525, as an outcome of his work on calculating the date of Easter. It was especially at the time of Charlemagne (8thCentury) that the AD dating system become widespread in Western Europe. However, the calculations as to the exact year of Christ’s birth were not perfect and today, by surveying history and the data of Scripture it now seems rather more certain that Christ was born closer to what we call today 6 B.C! Nevertheless the current dating system remains a reference to Jesus Christ. Even the most secular of people calculate their place in time by Jesus Christ. Every letter that is dated, every check that is written, every appointment that is made is swept up into the life of Christ! Let us hope that the ACLU or some militant atheist group will want to tamper with the calendar. It is already a fact that many secularists and scholars who want to avoid “offending” by referencing Christ in any way and have begun to abandon the BC/AD system in favor of a BCE/CE system (Before the Common Era/Common Era). Well, even if they want to try and call it something else that “2011” still has Christ for its reference point.
  2. But if 2011 is a reference to the Birth of Christ why do our dates change on January 1st and not December 25th? There are likely two things at work here. It would seem that the Ancient Romans had fixed what we call today January 1st at the first Day of their New Year. But this still leaves the question as to why Christian Europe when setting the calculation of the year to Christ’s Birth did not also switch New Years day to December 25th. The answer to this seems rooted in what we discussed yesterday regarding the Christmas octave. Most people think that Christmas Day is one day called December 25th. That is not accurate. It is the Catholic practice that we celebrate the “Octave” of Christmas. (We do the same thing with Easter). So important is this feast that we celebrate it for eight whole days (Dec 25,26,27,28,29,30,31, Jan 1). But the “Octave” is really considered one long day. Upon the completion of this long day, on January 1 the Birth”day” of Christ is complete and our calendars advance to the next year. Hence it is fortunate that the Ancient Roman practice of January 1 and the Christian notion of the Octave both coincide to have New Years day on January 1. January 1st is really the completion of Christmas Day, marking another Birthday of Christ and thus the year advances.
  3. So there are strong Catholic Christian components for the celebration of New Years and in the Date we write on every check and how we understand our place in time. Surely we owe the Jews as well for our seven day weeks for it is the Old Testament that records the 7 days of creation, though interestingly enough many ancient cultures seem also to have a seven day cycle. It almost seems written in human nature. The sun of course gives us the length of our days and the years. The moon gives us our months for “month” is just a mispronunciation of moon – as in, “what “moonth” are we in?”
  4. Now to be sure there ARE other designations out there a to what year we are in. For the Jews whole celebrate their New Year (Rosh Hashana) in September it is the year 5771. The Chinese reckon this year as 4708, 4707, or 4647 depending on what system they use. Arabic reckoning makes this the year 1432 (AH). They start their count based on the number of years since Muhammad completed his journey to Medina. Despite the existence of these and other systems, it is the Christocentric date that really unites the world, it’s the common point of reference.

Some one once said that Jesus is Lord of History since history is “his-story”

An interesting calendar matter places Jesus in the US Constitution. It is usually claimed by secularists that God is nowhere mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Actually He is, right at the very end there is a clear reference to Jesus:

Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names:

Notice, “the year of OUR Lord.” Not even just “the year of THE Lord.” That would offend secularists enough, but they went further and described 1787 as the year of “our” Lord. Some will say, “Well that’s just how they talked then.” But that is just the point. The Founding Fathers did not hesitate to use this expression because they did not have the idea that the public square had to be a “religion-free zone.” The Constitution does not provide freedom FROM religion, it provides freedom FOR religion.

I wish you a very blessed and happy Year of our Lord 2010!

When I was a kid I used to love these Moody Bible Institute films on faith and science. I spliced a couple of excerpts here from the one on the Mystery of Time. Please consider watching this 5 minute video. I don’t think you’ll regret that you did. It really spells out the mystery of time which we focus on today.

19 Replies to “Why is it 2011? (or) Why New Years is Not Simply Secular”

  1. What an explosive video, especially the part ‘For an omniscient God every point in space is here and every moment in time is now.’ This provides new insight into the Doxology ‘As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.’ It also makes me think about the ‘perpetual sacrifice’ and the Mass being offered at the rising of the sun in each time zone each day throughout the world.

    This is mind blowing from a prayer perspective, especially regarding meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary or scripture and why it’s so important for us and pleasing to God. For God, It makes us truly present in time again at whatever event we’re meditating on, or something like that I think? Too much to think about…..

  2. True, thank you so much Msgr Charles for such a wonderful meditation. Personally, i silently adimire St Joseph for his pesonality. He lived a silent life where holiness was shinnig greatly. St Joseph pray for us to remain in the innocence of the child Jesus who hadbeen born for us. Amen

  3. This has been a very challenging year for us, but one of the best things has been reading this blog and learning and growing in our faith. I am looking forward to the New Year, putting my small hand in Jesus’s and letting him lead me, carry me.

    I find myself singing: “May the good Lord bless and keep you …” for you. Love, V.

  4. And not merely Christian, but Catholic in particular. Up into the 1700s, much of the non-Catholic Christian west still followed the Julian calendar, which was not as accurate and lost a day every few centuries. By the 1700s, there were several days difference between the Julian calendar and the Gregorian (Catholic) calendar. Thankfully, notwithstanding their vehement anti-Catholicism, the British crown switched the Empire over to the Gregorian system a short time before the American Revolution. Otherwise, we would have to recalcuate the dates for various times during the strive for Independance. (For example, George Washington was born under the old system, so when he was born, it was not actually on the official date that we observe it today.)

  5. Ah, the ability to discuss time in relationship to God and creation should be something that all Cathoic apologists should master. The illustration in the video vis. all time being present based on one’s physical location gives it a new twist for me and brings the discussion from a conceptual idea to something which is more subjective, something which people can relate to.

    The last few lines of the video are killer. “The possiblity that every act, good or bad, lives on and on, that we are forever accountable for our actions.” Ooooh, how Catholic!

    The whole theme, that God see’s all time as “Now” and sees all action as “Here” even sounds kinda Eucharistic to me. Reminds me of the Mass. The video is, I think, a great defense of the Catholic idea of the perpetual sacrifice of the Mass.

    Very, very good.


    1. “The possiblity that every act, good or bad, lives on and on, that we are forever accountable for our actions.” Yes, I liked this very much as well.

      I was also thinking how when you fall in love, time seems to stops. Hours pass with a beloved and you don’t notice it. Love transcends time and God is Love divine.

  6. While the thought in the video is admirable, it is strange to have to bring us, but what if Scripture is correct, and the Earth is firmly centered in the universe, and the time and frame references referred to in the video are completely wrong. What if the millions of years referenced didn’t ever exist, but creation occurred as Scripture directs? Strange, but maybe God knows a little more about His work then we do.

  7. While teaching my children elementary grade science, I have learned much about God. It has led me to contemplate the perfections of God in prayer.

    I have also wondered about those times when we are in situations, mostly frightening ones, in which time seems to stop. One of the Virginia Tech students described hiding under a desk pretending to be dead and not knowing how much time had gone by during the shooting rampage. I have begun to think that this is when God is so close to us that that is exactly what is happening: time is standing still.

  8. Jesus Christ created time from his seat outside of time, where He sits in Eternity. Jesus Christ created time, then stepped into time, and split time into two parts, the Before Christ, and the Anno Domini, year of the Lord. There however is no year Zero (0). We count from the time of Jesus (A.D.) on the Gregorian Calendar.

    Prior to the Gregorian Calendar, time was measured by the Julian Calendar. The Julian Calendar estimated the year to have 365.25 days, when in fact it was about 11 minutes less. The accumulated error between the two values resulted in a 10 day error on the calendar. The Roman Catholic Church considered this error to be effecting the equinox which was tied to the celebration of Easter. Pope Gregory XIII, after whom the calendar is named signed a decree on 24 February 1582, a Papal Bull known by its opening words, ‘Inter gravissimas.’ The papal bull reform contained two parts, a reform to the Julian Calendar, together with a reform of the lunar cycle used by the Church to calculate the dates of Easter. According to the new calendar, which I belived the change took place on March 21st of 1582, if a person left on a ten day journey, and left on the 11th of March, he or she would get to their destination on the day they left. The Russian Octoberfest is now held during the month of November, because of the 10 day loss of time. The Gregorian calendar is the ‘International’ method of measuring time. The Muslims, Chinese, and others are simply outside of the mainstream. The BC/AD system is in secular history books.

    When God started time, time started wilth the ‘NOW.’ Then time begin to flow, moment by moment, time is a measurement of movement, but the ‘now’ stands still. The past is frozen, and we anticipate the flow of time to bring the future. God sits outside of time, as He is the author of eternity. Time is the measurement or a period of a thing which we call age. God has no beginning, and what does not have a begining, is eternal, therefore God is the only one eternal. God can see time from the start to the end, like a watchman in a tower who can see a parade of people below walking along a winding road, He can see the beginning, the middle, and the end. The ‘now’ of tilme is the movable part which correspondes to the movement of time as we measure it.

    Eternity and time are different as time has a beginning and an end, and eternity has no beginning or an end. There exist a third method of measurement called AEVITERNITY, which is similar to both eternity and time, in that is exists like time, it has a beginning, and like eternity, it has no end. Aeviternity is distinguished from eternity, and time by the distinction mentioned above, and it is how the time of spiritual substances (angels and demons) is measured.

  9. Wow! A great way to start the new year reading and listening to this. Thank you, Father Pope and have a Blessed and Happy New Year.

  10. For the Romans, the new year started in March and Augustus took a day off the end of February to make August 31 days like July named after Julius Caeser. After all HIS month couldn’t be shorter than Julius’s. This is also why February gets the leap year day. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the new year started with where the king was celebrating Christmas. It was well into the 18th century in England and America that the new year date started March 25 (vernal equinox) so historians translate the year into modern practice and sometimes they don’t so it gets confusing.

    1. I think you have a number of things wrong. The Roman (consular) year began in March until the middle of the second century BC, when it was shifted to January 1. For all intents, by the time Christ was born, the Roman year therefore did begin on the first of January. Augustus in no way took any days off of February; that month had always been shorter (the reasons for this are debated, though the Romans seem to have thought that even numbers were unlucky, and February was supposedly an inauspicious month). Before the Julian calendar reforms, the remaining Roman months had either 29 or 31 days, and the year was about ten days too short. This was “fixed” by adding an extra month every couple of years. After the Julian reforms, all months save February had 31 or 30 days—the same system we use today. Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar in 46-45 BC, long before Augustus’ reign. It was under Caesar that Sextilis (later August) was changed from 29 to 31 days.

      As for leap year, this too has nothing to do with the actions of Augustus. Rather, as mentioned above, the Romans had to add an extra “month” every couple of years to bring their civic calendar (which was 354 days long) into line with the solar calendar (365.25 days). This was done by inserting 22 or 23 days at or near the end of February every few years. The Julian calendar was 365 days, necessitating an extra day every four years—this day was added to February. The contemporary leap year day of February 29 is an outgrowth of this calendar practice.

  11. Great video. I enjoyed these as a kid too.

    I just wish someone could explain to me why time seems to go faster and faster the older you get, whereas it went so slowly as a kid. I can’t believe 2010 is over already! Maybe our momentum picks up the closer we get to God on our return trip.
    Happy New Year.

  12. Monsignor, please forgive me if this is the wrong time or place to postulate a question,i.e.:
    1.) The Church has always taught that one person could “earn” graces for another by performing works of mercy, prayers, etc.
    2.) It has always been taught that God can “intercede” with special graces to someone at their point of death.
    3.) We can (and do) pray for the conversion of sinners – even a particular sinner.
    4.) God can do whatever He wants to do.
    5.) God exists outside of time.
    Is it a possibility that if I pray for someone deceased already, and “earn” a pleanary indulgence for them, or even a partial indulgence, could they be saved from hell?
    Could you elaborate, please?

    1. Well the bottom line is that prayers help when the person for whom we pray is not in mortal sin. But 1 John 5 speaks of mortal sin and implies that our prayers (except I suppose for their conversion) are of little avail. Thus to each question
      1: I would avoid the word earn and see that you have placed it in quotes. Perhaps it is better to say simply that our prayers make a positive difference for people.
      2: God can intervene at death but not in a way that robs a person of freedom. Hence, there is little doubt that the grace for final conversion is available even to hardened sinners. The question is, especally after being hardened, they will accept the final offer.
      3: Yes
      4: Yes, but he does not rob people of their freedom by forcing them in some way.
      5: Yes, I would say he exists in the fullness of time but your expression is also valid.

      Therefore: an indulgence can be had only for the living or those in purgatory. As for those in hell, the Lord teaches that the condition is eternal and cannot be reversed for their decision is final. God will not over-ride the free decision of them and by hell their decision is final.

  13. Dear Monsignor Pope,
    Can we say that by our prayers, we may affect a conversion of even a most serious sinner (as an example, St. Monica)?
    Augustine was, apparently, a serious sinner – perhaps a mortal sinner. Yet her prayers effected a conversion in him.
    Also, the prayers of the saints in heaven are effective in a person’s conversion, I believe.
    Therefore, would it be any different if God Who knows today what prayers will be said for us into eternity would – as a result of those prayers – offer the added graces for conversion on someone’s deathbed?
    After all, God wills that all be converted and saved.
    I know that anyone who dies in the state of mortal sin is condemned to hell for all eternity. But can we hope – and pray – that someone may have had a conversion in “that last instant of life”?

  14. Msgr. Pope,

    Thanks for the reflection, especially tying in the week as a Christian element. But with regard to your point 2, I thought the salient fact about dating the year from January 1 was that January 1, being the eighth day, is the day that the Law prescribed for the Circumcision of our Lord, and hence it is truly our Lord’s name day. Thus if we really want to reckon time according to Jesus, it is not his birthday, but his name day that is more important. Thus we see that the world stops and honors not just the person of our Lord or even his Lordship, but the actual name of Jesus, “So that at Jesus’ name every knee must bend, in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of the God the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord.”

    This makes more sense to me than the idea that completing the Octave ushers in the new year. If we wanted to begin the year with our Lord’s birthday, then it seems to me that if it’s really just one long day, then the year should begin on December 25 (when the one day begins), but if it’s eight days long, then it should still begin on December 25 (the first day) because it doesn’t really make any sense to split the eight days across two calendar years. But if we’re dating from the naming of our Lord rather than his birth (which seems actually rather less important as a historical milestone than the Annunciation when he actually became flesh), then the choice of January 1 over December 25 seems fully justified.

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