New Year's and the Lord of History

Published December 29, 2010

The Catholic Difference

The contrarian rule I have long tried to observe with respect to New Year’s Eve — get to bed by 10 p.m. — was confirmed by its breach on the night of December 31, 1981. Perhaps the inspiration came from watching too many episodes of “The Duchess of Duke Street,” but whatever its provenance, my friend David Brewster and I conceived the notion of seeing in 1982 with an Edwardian dinner party: a black tie affair with seven or eight courses, each accompanied by its own wine. Our variant was to get our children, then quite young, involved. So a long parade of comestibles (soup, fish, game, sorbet, meat, sweet, savory, or somesuch) was interspersed with theatricals by the kids, piano and cello recitals, poetry readings, and at least one long, cold walk through Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood.

My 1981 calendar reminds me that my wife and I were to provide a quail pie for the game course, and that the proceedings, held at the Brewsters’ ample home, began at 4 p.m. Aside from that quail pie (the leftovers of which made an odd accompaniment to the Rose Bowl the following afternoon), and Joyce Brewster’s outstanding crown rack of lamb, I can’t say that the other details of this mad caper remain much with me. I do recall, with appropriate remorse, that my attendance at Mass on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, six or seven hours after the last drop of brandy was imbibed, involved something less than the “full, conscious, and active participation” prescribed by Vatican II.

Never again.

I’d like to think, though, that my longstanding aversion to making a Big Deal out of New Year’s Eve has something to do with my conviction, which is the Church’s conviction, that the real “new year” begins with First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent. And if that’s true, then going bonkers over the turn of the civil calendar is giving a bit more to Caesar than Caesar has a right to receive.

Advent, which was happily at its longest in 2010, ought to be a season reminding us of that. Yet the Church’s Advent meditation on the two comings of Christ — his coming in the flesh at Christmas, and his coming in glory which establishes his reign as the Lord of History — is often foreshortened, as the glory of Bethlehem occupies all the mental and spiritual “space” of the season. In fact, I suspect that many of us only touch the second, or eschatological, meaning of Advent inadvertently, when and if we listen to the concluding chorus of Handel’s Messiah, which is drawn from Revelation 5.12-14.

My Italian missal offers a helpful reminder of this fuller dimension of the mystery of the Incarnation in one of its auxiliary prefaces for Advent:

You have hidden from us the day and hour in which Christ your Son, the Lord and judge of history, will appear upon the clouds of heaven clothed in power and splendor; on that great and glorious day, the present world will pass away, and new heavens and a new earth will arise. Now, Christ comes to meet us in every man and in every time, so that we may accompany him in faith and bear witness in love to the blessed hope of his reign.

And so, anticipating his final advent, together with the angels and saints we sing as one the hymn of your glory…

Now that’s something worth staying up late to ponder: the Yom Yahweh, the Day of the Lord, in which every tear will be wiped away and all things will be made new; the day when the Father brings to completion, in the Supper of the Lamb, the work of salvation first announced in the call of Abraham; the day which begins that endless day called the Kingdom come in its fullness; the day on which that often-hollow phrase “the international community” takes on real meaning.

Compared to that, Times Square on New Year’s Eve is pretty small beer.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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