This month shall be to you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year for you. - Exodus 12:2
There are three basic kinds of “special days,” those in memory of outstanding individuals, those that memorialize historical events, and those that mark seasonal changes. The first two may tend to overlap, since a great event may focus on an outstanding individual, or we may choose an individual’s birthday for celebration.
Apparently most Israelite holy days were of the seasonal variety. They celebrated firstfruits, harvest, and ingathering. The one great exception was Passover, the celebration of the Exodus. Its purpose was to remind Israel of the divine acts by which she had been delivered from slavery. The Passover seder centers in a retelling of the story of that deliverance. The closest parallel in our calendar is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, but it seems that we celebrate it with much less of a sense of the event or events that it is supposed to call to mind.
Certainly, it does not loom as large for us as Passover did and does for Israel and Judaism. Passover was not just fitted into the existing calendar, it changed the calendar. “This month shall be to you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year for you.” This can be understood as a recognition that the story of the nation really starts here. The tales of the patriarchs were prologue. The nation proper began to come into existence only when the people began to act together under a single leader.
The basis of our own New Year is seasonal rather than historical. The choice of January first probably stems from a compromise between solar and lunar calendars, representing the new moon closest to the winter solstice. The solar calendar would have the new year start on December twenty-second, when things turn around and the days start getting longer instead of shorter. January first was the official beginning of the year in Rome from the middle of the second century B.C. In medieval times, European Christianity opted for March twenty-fifth, and while William the Conqueror in the eleventh century chose the first of January, England seems to have reverted to the general European practice until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. Sweden, incidentally, did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1753, and for a while Swedenborg had to specify which system he was using when he dated his manuscripts.
The closeness of New Year’s day and Christmas is no mere coincidence. The date chosen in 274 for Christmas was that of a Roman festival of the winter solstice, celebrating “the birthday of the unconquered sun (natalis solis invicti)”. We cannot help but think of the Gospel of John ; “The light is shining in darkness, and the darkness has not mastered it.”
In a way, then, the whole focus of our New Year is very different from that of Passover. The Passover looked back in gratitude. If we look back at the winter solstice, what we see is the gathering darkness. New Year’s day looks ahead. It is a statement of confident hope, a recognition that the light is gathering strength. It is designed to awaken optimism.
A century ago, the mood in this country was strikingly optimistic. Material resources seemed inexhaustible, and technological progress promised a standard of living undreamed of. Thoughtful people looked ahead and saw a century of peace and plenty coming, and as far as plenty is concerned, they were not far wrong. The majority of people in our country, the whole middle class, lives with comforts and conveniences that were beyond the reach of even the wealthiest a century ago.
If the prophets of that era were right about plenty, though, they were obviously not right about peace, either international or domestic. They were not right about the elimination of poverty, but even more to the point, they were not right about the elimination of discontent. With our twenty-twenty hindsight, we can only label their optimism as naive. They did not realize how deep are the roots of our inhumanity to each other.
Two world wars, the holocaust, domestic violence, economic greed, and ecological callousness have made that kind of optimism unthinkable. Among philosophers and historians, the very concept of “progress” is suspect. So it was startling at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993 to hear the Dalai Lama state his conviction that we were about ready to turn the corner, that the next millennium would be far better than the last.
The Dalai Lama is not naive. He has seen his country brutally conquered by an utterly atheistic Chinese regime. He and many of his people live in exile, and it is heartening to know that our church in Cambridge is making its contribution to their spiritual and material survival.
No, when we look at what the Dalai Lama has been through, and what he is affirming, perhaps we should ask whether there may not be such a thing as “naive pessimism.” As people a century ago got so caught up in all the wonderful things that were happening that they did not realize the extent and the strength of human evil, perhaps we are so caught up in all the terrible things that are happening that we do not realize the extent and the strength of human goodness. The help that came from the community of Bridgewater in our time of need was very real. The affection for this church that surfaced among its members was very real. There are loving and thoughtful spouses and parents as well as abusive ones. There is a factory owner who chooses to pay his employees and continue their medical benefits even though his mill has been devastated by fire.
In fact, we have no real way of adding up the total score to determine which outweighs which. In that sense, we have no definitive way of measuring “progress.” Pessimism says this proves that progress is an illusion, but that is an unwarranted conclusion. Just because I don’t have a scale does not mean that I am not gaining weight. It doesn’t mean that I am not losing weight or holding my own, either. It means no more than it says, that I cannot measure myself in this regard.
We can and do measure the times of sunrise and sunset, the lengths of day and night. We are quite sure that for more than a week now, the days have been getting longer. This does not mean that the difficulties of winter are over—we know from experience that they are probably just beginning. It does mean that winter will not have the last word, that spring will come.
A realistic optimism, similarly, does not sweep difficulties under the rug. Rather, it insists that the power of goodness is ultimately greater than the power of evil, and if God is perfect love and wisdom, we can hardly believe otherwise. We know from experience that in individual cases, wrong can have the last word. New Year’s Day reminds us that ultimately, universally, good is omnipotent. Perhaps our little planet could be one of the individual cases in which wrong has the last word, but after all, it is a very little planet.
All this comes to its sharpest focus in us as individuals. When we are pessimistic about the world around us, this reflects in part our evaluation of ourselves. We project. When we see violence or injustice outside ourselves, we sense within it the only feelings we know at first hand—our own. We may not be able to imagine them at that intensity, but we do have a sense of their essential quality. We wonder what may lie beneath the surface of our own consciousness, and are not in any hurry to find out.
Our theology indicates that if we could see beneath the surface, we would find evils that we have not yet dealt with. It assures us, though, that this is not the whole story, not at all. If we could see through the layer that Swedenborg calls “the natural,” we would find that inner person which still and always reflects the image of its creator. The worst life we can lead does not destroy that image, but “closes it off,” imprisons it. It is the life force of everything that emerges on the surface of our consciousness. Our most shameful impulses are not so much denials as distortions of it.
Make no mistake, the distortions can be terrible. Hitler saw Christ as “the greatest early fighter against the world enemy, the Jews,” and saw himself as carrying that battle to completion. This does not actually destroy the beauty of the Lord’s love or cancel out its power. In fact, we do not appreciate the power of that love except as we acknowledge the power of its opposite, just as the hope awakened by the winter solstice has meaning only against the background of the gathering darkness. Perhaps we may simply hope that naive pessimism is ultimately as fragile as naive optimism.
One closing thought. It is dangerous to see things in terms of simple, polar contrasts between light and darkness, good and evil. It can all too readily lead to a holocaust or to a Bosnia. Yet without a moral compass, we are truly lost. The problems come when, to use doctrinal terms, we make our judgments on the basis of external appearances. This physical world is a very ambiguous place. It is only in the spiritual world, and there only in the light of heaven, that evil and good appear outwardly as they really are.
What we can know here and now is that good is always loving and perceptive, inherently trustful, and that it treasures both difference and harmony. What we can know about evil is that it is fearful and deceptive, desperate to be in control, and intolerant of contradiction. And what New Year’s Day tells us is that of these, good is ultimately, infinitely, the stronger.