Editor’s note: This article first appeared on January 1, 2014.
The God of Abraham is enigmatic, paradoxical, capricious, or so He must always seem to us, our understanding being imperfect, the limitations of our minds severe and unnegotiable. On Christmas, we celebrate the fact that He, in His incomprehensible goodness, chose to dwell among us, for our salvation. Emanuel, God Who Is With Us. The journey that begins in Bethlehem and ends (but does not end) at Golgotha must for our mortal days be the subject of faith — the reasoning mind recoils from it.
But there is another, less enigmatic, less mysterious god (and capital letters are not his thing) who reminds us of his austere presence during these abbreviated days of winter: the god of passing time. New Year’s is his Christmas, Lent, and Easter all at once, but he is undemanding when it comes to the rituals practiced in his honor. He requires no priest or intermediary. His law is inscribed not on our souls but on our cells. His church is every place where we are laid prone with our names written at our heads: every nursery ward, every graveyard. There is an old joke about two men who as newborns were laid side by side in the nursery, and who, at impossible odds, end up side by side in the same hospital room at the ends of their lives; one asks the other: “So, how was it for you?” You can make jokes about the god of passing time — he does not laugh, he is not offended, he is comprehensively indifferent, as cold and remote as the star over Bethlehem. If we make jokes about him, we make them for ourselves. The proverb tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But nobody needs convincing when it comes to the god of passing time: We are born terrified of him and of the darkness of his eternal shadow. Winter is cold, and the ice is treacherous:
Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
At the time when their foot shall slide:
For the day of their calamity is at hand,
And the things that are to come upon them shall make haste.
The first scuff on a nice new pair of shoes, or the first scratch in the paint of a new car, is a disappointment. You knew it was coming, but the first one hurts. But there are other scuffs and scratches soon enough. Every new pair of wingtips is destined to be a scuffed-up pair of old shoes, every new car is destined for the junk pile. But years are different: The first lost year hurts the least. Then they hurt more. Sometime around 30 or so we approach one New Year’s Eve and, meditating on the year that is past, think: “Well, didn’t make much of that.” We resolve to amend our ways. The ritual of the New Year is a peculiar one, a glass of champagne with a chaser of Puritanism, a supplementary Mardi Gras followed by a secular Ash Wednesday and a variable-length Lent for the casual unbeliever. A second scuff on the shoe, the locomotive of right-here-right-now dragging forward an ever-lengthening train of unreformed years. But dragging it forward where? We resolve to amend our ways.
And the god of passing time draws nearer to us.
In Russia there is a Mount Yamantau, the name of which means “evil mountain.” And perhaps it is an evil mountain — it is said to contain key elements of the Russians’ “dead hand” nuclear-retaliation apparatus. There are other cursed mountains in the world, and there are sacred mountains. I once rode a rickety bus up narrow, back-bent mountain roads into the Himalayas and at the bottom of a gorge saw the irretrievable remains of an identical bus. I began to recall every time I’d written a headline reading “Bus plunges into ravine, XX dead.” That bus was the only place in India where I saw Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians all praying together, fervently. Angels and ministers of grace defend us from gravity, that the driver’s foot shall not slide. But the mountains were not evil mountains, or blessed mountains, or mountains of any moral inclination. They were mountains of unmindfulness. If the god of passing time has monuments, they are the mountains, built up and pulverized over eons. They are beautiful, and full of long-clawed, hungry things. It may be that all of us on that bus, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, terrified agnostic, were praying to the wrong deities.
With apologies to the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, we are sinners in the hands of an indifferent god. “Natural men’s prudence and care to preserve their own lives, or the care of others to preserve them, don’t secure ’em a moment. This divine providence and universal experience does also bear testimony to.”
How dieth the wise man? As the fool.
But there is work to be done, and champagne to be had (in moderation — we resolve to amend our ways), and even though everybody — everybody — knows that everybody — everybody — at every — every — New Year’s Eve party is only pretending to enjoy himself, we observe the proper offices and come together in our little pools of light in the brumal darkness. And we may even raise a glass to the god of passing time, who is there, too. He is not unwelcome. He does not wish us ill. He does not wish us anything at all.