The Significance of the New Year
The hour at which one day changes to the next is not consistent around the world. For countries close to the equator, where sunrise is consistently at 6 a.m. year round, mark the new day as starting at sunrise, six hours into what we call the day. For Jews, the same holds true, but the day starts at 6 p.m., six hours before what we mark as the change of day at midnight.
The date of the New Year varies as well as the hour. When Julius Caesar introduced a new calendar, all time was dated from the start of his reign in 45 b.c. In that calendar, January 1 was the first day of the year. This held true for nearly six centuries. But then New Year’s was moved to March from January, and that date was used for a millennium. This change was the decision of the church council which met in Tours, France in 567 a.d. The Council of Tours selected March 25 for New Year’s Day as that date was a day nine months before Christmas and so the date to recall Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit. The council viewed a new era as dawning with Jesus’ life beginning in the womb of Mary of Nazareth.
For just over 1,000 years, March 25—known in church terms as the Annunciation, for the day the Angel Gabriel visited Mary—was New Year’s Day. Some countries, including England, held out until the mid-18th century to change New Year’s back to Julius Caeser’s date of January 1.
Our current calendar with the dating of years to Jesus’ birth was the creation of Dionysius Exiguus, a 6th century monk from present-day Romania. The name translates to Dennis the Insignificant. Dionysius created our current calendar, which we call the Julian Calendar as a part of his work in fixing the date of Easter on a 532-year cycle. Dionysius was not precise on which year he thought Jesus’ birth took place as no year was labeled Zero. Either 1 a.d. or 1 b.c. are possible. Earlier historians had deduced what is now 2 b.c. and modern scholars think that 3 b.c. is most likely for the actual year of Jesus’ birth.
Around the world, countries use the Julian calendar as a common form of dating time for airline flights and other issues of international concern. Despite using this common system of dating, there are other systems of dating in common use.
The Byzantine Empire’s calendar started September 1, as they calculated the creation occurred on September 1, 5509 b.c.
The civil calendar of India began with the the Saka Era—King Salivahana’s accession to the throne. In the Saka calendar, the year 2010 a.d. is 1933. The other popular calendar in Hindu culture is Vikram era which started with the coronation of King Vikramaditya. In the Vikram system, 2010 a.d. is 2068.
On the Chinese calendar, we are now in the year 4707. In the Jewish calendar, which like the Byzantine one, purported to date from creation and is now in the year 5770.
In the Islamic calendar, which dates from Muhammad’s move from Mecca to Medina, the current year is 1431.
Buddhists calculate dates on a calendar beginning with the traditional date of the Buddha’s death at the age of 80, making it currently 2552. Though remember, all of these calendars follow a different year and so during 2010, we will turn to the Buddhist year 2553, and so on for the other calendars referenced above.
The increasingly smaller world of commerce and international relations needs a system of calculating dates to give us a common point of reference. For Christians, what is significant about Dennis the Insignificant’s work is that he moved most of the world to calculating time based on God becoming human in Jesus, rather than on the beginning of the reign of Julius Caesar or some other worldly emperor.
From any perspective, it would have been unthinkable at the time of Jesus’ birth or crucifixion that anyone would even remember the Jewish rabbi Jesus 2000 years later, much less calculate their days based on the year of his birth. Even if the system is off 2-3 years, the original intent remains to set time by this event in what Christians consider salvation history.
Not surprisingly, this system has been revised slightly in recent years. In academic settings, the system now in use avoids the designation “a.d.,” which abbreviates “Anno Domini,” Latin for “In the Year of Our Lord.” Instead, the years of the Julian calendar are referred to as either “c.e.,” for “common era” or “b.c.e.,” for “before common era.” This avoids referring to a year as being the “Year of Our Lord” in preference to simply acknowledging that we hold this dating system in common.
The years of our calendar will not hold the same significance for everyone. Yet each date is a way in which Christians can intentionally mark time based on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. While we know the original meaning behind the dates will remain insignificant to those who do not share our faith, Christians can and should appreciate that what God has done through Jesus transformed time itself.
The text above is my religion column for today's issue of the Tribune & Georgian.
Labels: religion column