Unlike the coziness and warmth of the Christmas season, New Year’s has always seemed to me cold and vaguely ominous. I am sure there are adventurous souls who see in the unknown of each January 1 only possibilities and opportunities. For me, though, New Year’s Day presents itself as the edge of a vast terrain of uncertainty and mystery. All of this unwelcome feeling is, of course, magnified when a particular New Year ushers in not just a new year but a new decade.
Where does the time go?
As I reflected on the turning of this year, I remembered first becoming conscious of time on January 1, 1960. And of course, those of us old enough to remember know how the ’60s turned out. Then, I reflected on the ultimately unnecessary anxiety that took hold of our country twenty years ago at the turn of the century. Some of you remember Y2K. I was also startled to realize that we are now one-fifth finished with the “new” 21st century. Where does time go?
The reality of time is uncomfortable
My New Year thoughts turned finally in a more productive direction as I recalled one of the books I had read just prior to Christmas, The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel introduces his short but profound essay on the centrality of the Sabbath to the Jewish faith with a discussion of time in the human experience. In contrast to the realm of space, which, the author asserts, is the realm of “man’s conquest” as evidenced in “technical civilization,” we are uncomfortable with the reality of time. “Indeed,” Heschel states, “we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951], see especially pages 5-10.) He goes on to make the case that the uniqueness of the religion of Judaism is its focus on time. Indeed, the God of Judaism, unlike the gods of other nations, was presented and honored as the lord of time, not space. This God did not need to be represented by a physical object or by association with any particular part of nature. Rather, this God was the God of events in time. And part of honoring this God was to celebrate and to “sanctify” time (ibid., page 8). This is all background to the author’s discussion of the centrality of Sabbath as a marker of God’s people in the world.
While Heschel himself does not go here, my mind immediately connected his reflections with one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 90. I have for years thought of this Psalm as a kind of “patron Psalm” for historians. In this Psalm, we are reminded, first of all, that we live out our lives in the context of God’s eternity. We are invited to think of this God who is Lord of Time as our “dwelling place”—our home, as it were.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth or ever you had formed the earth and the World, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:1; New Revised Standard Version)
We are then confronted in verses 3-10 with our own finitude in the light of God’s eternity. We are nothing more than a “sigh” in the scheme of things (verse 9). It is this uncomfortable reality that we must face each New Year as we sense the fleeting passage of time. We are presented annually, if we have avoided it at other times, with our inability to “conquer time,” in Heschel’s words.
Teach us to count our days
The Psalmist’s answer, then, is to name this reality before the Lord of Time in prayer. “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (verse 12). His prayer goes on to ask that this God of Eternity would meet us in our finitude, “satisfying us in the morning with God’s steadfast love” (verse 14), balancing out gladness with the affliction in our lives (verse 15), showing us God’s work and God’s power (verse 16), and, finally, “prospering for us the work of our hands” (verse 17).
For us, as humans, there is no “conquering” of time. There is only the choice to submit ourselves daily to the loving heart and purposes of the God who has created us, who has shown us his faithfulness and loving kindness; who has redeemed us through the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ; and who calls us to live in the presence of the triune community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit today, tomorrow, each day of this new decade, and on into eternity.
This is the Good News as we enter 2020. I pray that you will be comforted—and humbled—as we make our plans and face the uncertainties of this century’s “roaring ’20s.”
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976