Fr. B M. Thomas – OCP News Service – 2/1/19

Civilizations around the world have been celebrating the start of a new year according to their respective calendars since times unknown. Today universally the New Year festivities begin on December 31st and end by the late hours of 1st January of the Gregorian calendar. These are the last and the first days of the Gregorian calendar. Throughout antiquity, civilizations around the world developed increasingly sophisticated time calculation methods. These were not in competition to one another as there were no distance communication methods available, but the need and increase in intellect led them to device newer methods. In most and almost all of these, the first day of the year was pinned to an agricultural or astronomical event. For instance, the first day of Egyptian new year was marked by the annual flooding of the river Nile, which coincided with the rising of star Sirius. In China, the new year began with the second new moon after winter solstice. The aim of this article is to increase the horizon of readers understanding the history of the new year and also to highlight the Orthodox Christian importance of the New Year day.

There are records of a festival by the name of ‘Akitu’ celebrated by the Babylonians in the third and second century BCE. This was marked by the first new moon after the vernal equinox. The festival marked the beginning of a new time period for them. It was then that new king was crowned or that the current ruler’s divine mandate was symbolically renewed. Not only in the Western world but also in the Eastern world, different calendars used.

Many times the ascension of a ruler or a dynasty into power marked the starting of a new time calculation. For instance, the beginning of ‘Shaka era’ is equated to the ascension of King Chashthana in 78CE. The ‘Shaka era’ is a historical era, or the Hindu Calendar, used in early Indian calculations of time. This era corresponds to the Julian Era 78. Another parallel Indian era system is the Vikrama era, related to the Bikrami Calendar linked to Vikramaditya. There is also a parallel Tamil Calendar, the New Year of which follows the Nirayanam or Vernal Equinox. It is a sidereal Hindu calendar. It corresponds generally to the 14th April of Gregorian Calendar. So, 14th April marks the first day of traditional Tamil Calendar and marks the public holiday in Tamil Nadu and Sri-Lanka. There is also a solar, sidereal Hindu Calendar known as the Kollavarsham. It is the Malayalam Calendar or the Kollam Era. The origin of the calendar is dated back to 825CE at Kollam in Kerala. There are many conflicting accounts related to the origins of the Malayalam Calendar.

Although there are many calendars, at present the Gregorian calendar is the universally approved and followed calendar for trade, communication, and travel. So, the reason why the 1st of January became the new year’s day in the present era is to be explored. There were 304 days or 10 months in the early Roman calendar. This calendar, according to tradition was created by Romulus, the discoverer of Rome, in the eighth century BC. The months of Januarius and Februarius were later added to the Roman calendar, by a later ruler Numa Pompilius, as it started to fall out of sync with the sun. In 46 BC emperor Julius Caesar formulated the Julian calendar after consultation with leading astronomers and mathematicians in court. The reason being that the Roman calendar totally fell out of sync with the sun. It was Julius Caesar (who as a part of his reform) instituted January 1st as the first day of the year. It was partly to honor the month’s namesake: Janus the Roman God of beginnings, whose two faces was an added boon to him as he could look back into the past as well as look forward into the future. By edict, New Year was celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus and exchanging of gifts. Later on, when the Julian calendar ran out of synchrony with the solar cycle, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted a new calendar, by dropping out 10 days from the Julian Calendar. The Gregorian calendar developed nearly 500 years ago, which is a variant of the Julian calendar and is widely used at present. It has the same New Year date as Julian Calendar, that is January 1st. We have seen that the “NEW YEAR DAY’ is celebrated in almost all the civilizations in the world, since antiquity. The day universally celebrated in the present world falls on January 1st and so we are here. Celebrating it.

As Orthodox Christians, we have to go one step forward in our New Year celebrations. The Church has further reasons for celebrations.
a) It commemorates the circumcision of our Lord.
b) The Church celebrates the memorials of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen (bishops and doctors of the Holy Church).
c) The Circumcision of our Lord and its relevance in our present-day celebrations.

As stated in the Gospel according to St. Luke Verse 2:21

On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

This should be an eye-opener for us all. many times (in this continuous, fast and furious world) we forget that our children are the true gift of God. We forget the promises that we might have made for acquiring these special gifts of love. It is high time that to check the progress of the modern world. We are many times overshadowed by our ego and pride. The Holy Theotokos had obtained a position that no one ever in history would attain, she became “The mother of God”, because of her humility. She remembered the words of the angel. Our Lord was initiated, by naming him Jesus as the angel had foretold, by a mother who was in such an elevated position.

This New Year let us all, say goodbye to our ego, and welcome humbleness in ourselves. Let us all take an oath that we will lead our future generations towards the path of God, just like the Holy Theotokos. This year let us all devote an hour extra in mentoring our children towards divinity. Apart from filling our future generations with pride, arrogance, aggressive attitude, greed and other worldly pleasures and pressures, let us guide them to be better human beings.

The lesson from the Great Doctors of the Church
On the new year occasion, the church celebrates the memorial of St. Basil the great and St. Gregory of Nazianzen, who were the great Bishops, Theologians, and Doctors of the Holy Church. It was at their time that Arianism was at its peak, and they fought bravely against the heresy of Arianism. As a bishop, St. Basil was a courageous and heroic champion of the Universal Christian undefiled faith against the Arian heresy. In 372 Emperor Valens sent Modestus, the perfect, to Cappadocia to introduce Arianism as the state religion. Modestus approached the holy bishop, upbraided him for his teaching, and threatened despoliation, exile, martyrdom, and death. To these words of the Byzantine despot, St. Basil replied with the peace of divine faith:

“Is that all? Nothing of what you mentioned touches me. We possess nothing, we can be robbed of nothing. Exile will be impossible, since everywhere on God’s earth I am at home. Torments cannot afflict me, for I have nobody. And death is welcome, for it will bring me more quickly to God. To a great extent I am already dead; for a long time I have been hastening to the grave.”

Astonished, the perfect remarked: “Till today no one has ever spoken to me so courageously.” “Perhaps,” added Basil,
“you have never before met a bishop.”

Modestus hastened back to Valens. “Emperor,” he said, “we are bested by this leader of the Church. He is too strong for threats, too firm for words, too clever for persuasion.” St. Basil was a great Orator, to the extent that he was known as “Golden Tongue of the Church”.

During the lifespan of St. Gregory, the pendulum was continually swinging back and forth between contemplation and active ministry. He longed for solitude, but the exigencies of the times called him repeatedly to do pastoral work and to participate in the ecclesiastical movements of the day. He was unquestionably one of the greatest orators of Christian antiquity; his many and great accomplishments were due in great measure to his exceptional eloquence. His writings have merited for him the title of “Doctor of the Church.”

It is a great blessing that the Church commemorates the memorial of these saints on the New Year day. There are many lessons that we can learn from their lives. Their zeal, faith, contempt etc are a true tonic for our survival. We can obviously not be equal to them, but we can try to come close to their deeds and help reflect such qualities in us, for the betterment of the future generations. Only then our mission in this world as a true Christian will be fulfilled and only then we would be able to celebrate a meaningful beginning of the year.

Let the intercession of the Holy Theotokos and the Saints be a stronghold for us all.

God Bless Us All. Wishing you all a Blessed New Year ahead!!

[1] sidereal time is a “time scale that is based on Earth’s rate of rotation measured relative to the fixed stars”. Or bluntly it is an astronomical time calculation.

OCP News Service