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A Different Time


Today, January 1, is not the beginning of the New Year – for Christians.

Dear visitor:

Please put a little something in the CERC stocking this Advent.


trinityIn the Christian dispensation, the New Year began on November 30, the First Sunday of Advent. January 1 is, comparatively, a historical accident.

Neither is today the end of the Christmas Season, as advertisers claim. Christmas, properly speaking, lasts twelve days. So several more yet to go. If you read Morning and Evening Prayer — as you should anyway — you'll see that it's all one long feast. And why, then, aren't you having a Twelfth Night party, as good Christians once did ?

Time, Biblical time, is not the same as secular time. Unless we live on a different time schedule, we will inevitably think and become secular. If January 1, an arbitrary date, starts your year, then the years, too, really become arbitrary, just "one damn thing after another." If your year begins with anticipation of the birth of the Savior, things take on a radically different cast.

Time and times matter in the Biblical framework, because God is a God of time and space, history and places, as well as of eternity and transcendence. Especially in this season, when we celebrate the fact that God chose to draw close to us as a little child in Bethlehem, His presence in all that is, even in this world — even in its most seemingly wild wastes — should become deeply part of us.

As someone born on the Winter Solstice (December 21) — the darkest day of the year, or the return to increasing daylight, depending on how you look at it — I appreciate how painstaking astronomical calculations have entered, historically, into our sense of time's passage.

But neither astronomy nor physics reach human time. The formula t = d/v is useful and precise for some things, but useless and too arid for others. Especially compared with, "In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth." Let alone with, "when the fullness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law: That he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons."

The ancients and medievals believed that the heavens returned to the place of "In the beginning" at Easter, and that time had reached its fullness on the first Christmas.

From the outside, which is to say from the shallow and narrow secular viewpoint of the postmodern West, these seem, at best, folk tales. And they are, if we take them only as ideas.

It's only when these truths are actually lived, from the inside, that they not only speak to our human condition, but begin to transform it. A Christian today has to live in a different time zone, so to speak. Loss of the real sense of the Christian year and the twelve days of Christmas is far worse, in its way, than secularization and commercialization, two abstractions that would immediately be seen for the flimsy things they are — if we lived by a different rhythm.

Living differently is not merely, to repeat, a matter of adopting different ideas, though that will also happen. It's more like learning a language with lots of grammatical exceptions and irregular verbs.

In foreign travels, I'm sometimes asked how we can say anything in English, given the relatively little grammar we have. If you had the good fortune of sweating at declensions and conjugations at some point in your education, it's amazing to realize that our language can seem too simple to foreigners, difficult for them to see — from the outside — how it's up to the full human task.

Loss of the real sense of the Christian year and the twelve days of Christmas is far worse, in its way, than secularization and commercialization, two abstractions that would immediately be seen for the flimsy things they are — if we lived by a different rhythm.

Even more puzzling to non-English speakers is the question of pronunciation: how do you know when "tears" (weeping) are "tears" (rips) — let alone carry out the Gospel parable of separating the wheat from the "tares." More crucially, how do you know how to pronounce "love" — absent concrete daily experience of the language — which might rhyme, to far different effect, with "Jove" or "prove."

Sometimes rules are so complicated as to become a series of singularities, and the only way to grasp how they all fit together is to live them until they become a kind of second nature that neither needs nor could be given full explanation.

For people who can only live by abstract ideas, of course, this is precisely the problem. It's all too untidy, too particular, all-too-human. But unless you want to eliminate what's fully human — a project obviously not absent from today's world — you will have to find some way to live what can never be reduced to an abstract system.

That God, the Creator of the universe, would choose to enter that universe is very odd. But then, so is the fact that a universe exists at all. And one of the oddest things about the world is that, though it's the only world any of us has ever known, we still can find its existence odd and our place in it a source of eternal questioning.

"In the beginning" and "the fullness of time" persist as living truths across ages because they take us back both to the unimaginable source, and to an equally incomprehensible moment, and both of a momentousness that no amount of skepticism can ever lay to rest.

At this time of the year, one of the very best things to do, besides celebrating the birth of the Savior with others — indoors, and with lots of food and drink — is to get outdoors and look at the night sky, which comes upon us early on winter evenings and stays late into the morning. Get away, too, from light pollution — and really look for yourself.

You'll see the same immensity arching over you that the shepherds witnessed that night in the fullness of time. Dwell on that for a while — it's no mere poetic fancy. And you may, just may, catch a glimpse of how that whole singular story stretches back, back beyond years and ideas, via a different time and scale, to the very beginning.



royalRobert Royal. "A Different Time." The Catholic Thing (January 1, 2015). 

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:

The Author

Royal1RoyalRobert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History,The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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