Another year has passed and gone with both its joys and tears. Ahead of us is 2017, an entirely new year that will bring with it its own sorrows and laughs, in spite of all the hope we invest in the thought that this year will be the “best year ever.” Due to the nature of the day, it is reasonable for minds to turn to the idea of time itself. With the passing of the old year, it is very easy to see time as a straight arrow, moving inexorably from past, through present, to future. But this belies the complexities of the subject, the root of which is the question: What is the nature of time?
St. Augustine quipped that he knew what time was until he was asked. The humor of his remarks still hold because it is the same conundrum that we face. Time is simple in that it is one of the first concepts of which we become aware, and yet it is foundational to our very thinking. We cannot conceive a state of being without time, which is why the state before the Big Bang–when there was no space and no time–is impossible to imagine. This is not to say that answers have not been posited, with the philosophers of the past especially eager to answer the riddle. Aristotle posited that time could not exist apart from change and that time was simply the temporal relations between things and events. Plato, on the other hand, taught that time was an independent entity, almost an empty vessel into which flow different things and events. These positions belied another question: Was time subjective, living only in the mind of the observer, or, was it objective , existing independently of any observation? The Scholastic philosophers–the masters of balance–said that time was partially objective and partially subjective in that “[time] becomes concrete in continuous, notably, local, movement; but movement becomes time only with the intervention of our intelligence.” But one of the most interesting questions–and one which exists outside the kingdom of the philosophers–is the question of time’s dimensions: Is time like a circle or a line?
That question, like the nature of time itself, might seem simple at first: time is moving from the past to the future in a straight line, an understanding that holds true on a deeper plan as well. Out innate understanding of past, present, and future depends upon the idea of time as a line, if it was not, and if it was taken to the radical degree of the old Greek materialists, then the future could become the period in which one was born. But wrinkles appear when the issue is kept in mind. Take, for example, the turning of the seasons. Every year, the four seasons cycle through, each taking approximately three months of the year. Although every year is different and so, it could be argued, every spring is different, it is also true that every spring is the same in that it is spring. Spring’s nature–its essence–is to be spring. This idea of circular time is not unfamiliar in the history of civilizations; the Celts had a circular calendar of eight “seasons” that began on the solstices, the equinoxes, and the times in between these four dates; the Aztecs had two calendars and the Mayans had five. These, like the Celtic one, were circular, which allowed them to have distinct features: the Aztec calendars aligned every 52 years, which marked a great event, according to the Aztecs, of wither good or ill; the Mayan calendar was like a huge wheel that, once it completed a cycle, would begin again. Far from predicting the end of the world in 2012, the Mayan calendar simply started another cycle. Arguments as to whether time was a circle or a line extended all the way to the American Revolution, with the inhabitants of the South holding more to a cyclical understanding of time, while New England taking the linear approach to the subject.
The two understandings of time may be reconciled with the image of a wheel rolling down a road. As the wheel roles, it is moving in a straight line but it is also turning in a circle. In this sense, the spring of 2017 will be different from the spring of 1955 in that our wheel will have moved further down the road but at the same time, the springs will be the same since the wheel will simply have come upon that portion of itself again. All of this brings us back to the New Year, but also, to Christmastide. Lost amidst the parties and resolutions is the fact that Christmas Day did not end on December 25, but extends into the New Year itself.
Many people have forgotten that Christmas lasts for twelve days–from December 25 to January 6 (the Epiphany)– a tradition that extends back to the Middle Ages. The reason for this is that it was recognized that the birth of Christ was of such monumental importance in and to the history of the world, that one day was not enough to commemorate it. Cynics may claim that the twelve days were created as an excuse for bacchanalian celebrations, which were the reasons why Oliver Cromwell outlawed the celebration of Christmas during his time as Lord Protector of England. But the cynics, as Oscar Wilde noted, are those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. If their was such a person as Christ (I believe there was) and if He was born (he would have to have been if He actually existed) and if He was God (I also believe He was) then it is not surprising that the time of Christmas could be extended for more than one day to celebrate an event hat only took a few hours. Time, as modern man has discovered, is an elastic reality, running slower or faster depending on one’s velocity, and changing according to where in the world one is. Given the natural oddities of time, a supernatural oddity would not be amiss for a supernatural event. If Shakespeare could write of Christmas in Hamlet:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comesWherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,The bird of dawning singeth all night long.And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad.The nights are wholesome. Then no planets strike,No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,So hallowed and so gracious is that time.
then an “extension” of time itself is not entirely out of the realm of possibility or even probability.
There are other seasons which last longer than Christmas’s twelve days; Easter, according to tradition Christian counting, is a season that lasts forty days. But Christmas is unique in that it is the only season that spans the old and the new year. As people begin to slip back into the habits of work and play with the recognized “end” of the “holidays” Christmas actually continues for another six days. It is a beautiful reminder that there is more to this world then merely what can be seen and touched and sensed. The power of the event that can extend itself for twelve whole days is a power to be reckoned with, but it is a power that has come to save and not to burn. Furthermore, it is a powerful reminder of the work that still needs to be done. As I wrote previously, it is the bad Christian who understands that there is still improvement to be made in his soul with the time with which he has been given; as Dr. Peter Kreeft has said, our identities are not fixed until death; here on earth, every action or inaction we take make us more into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature. With Christmas behind us, Christmas present, and Christmas extending before us, it is another reminder of what we are still working towards. Finally, it is a source of hope. Christmas, even if it lasted for only one day, would be a well for hope to gathered. The fact that it lasts for twelve days in the old and new year, is a sign that however bad things have become, either in our own lives, in our country and the world, or both, the Child who was born two thousand years ago and whose birth can extend itself for 288 hours, the past can be redeemed and the future can be changed, perhaps not by much, but maybe by enough to make all the difference in the world.