If you were to enter a home in ancient Rome, you would find in the doorway a dog with two heads. A statue of course. It is Janus, the Roman god of the doorway. One head looked to the past, the other to the future. Since the first month of the year has this two-fold function, it acts as a bridge between past and future, the Romans called it January.
It is a demanding month, a frightening month, perhaps more frightening than a birthday. It requires more than remembering to put the right year on our letters and our checks. It is a threshold, a passage, and every threshold makes us pause. Every passage leaves us different from the way we were.
Standing there for a moment as we cross the bridge from past to future, and looking back we see behind us the landscape of our lives strewn with the broken promises and the tattered dreams that never came to be, like silver planes that never flew or songs that were never sung.
I ask myself as I survey this dreary scene: How can I presume to ask the same old questions about the new year? How can I presume to act as if I haven’t been through all this before, haven’t asked the same old questions over and over again, year after year until they resound in my soul like voices in a canyon:
Do I have a future? Is it worth going on? What am I doing with my life? Can I face the problems that lie ahead? Can I square things with God? Can I begin again?
It isn’t easy to begin again. Every beginning means something in the past must die. Something in the future must be risked. I grasp for the courage to end a relationship I have no right to — to let it and a part of me die — and risk the terrible loneliness of endless tomorrows. Can I do it? Can I cast out into the deep? Despite the broken promises of the past, can I look forward to a new tomorrow —to beginning again? Can I drop my crutch and walk? Run? Can I let go of the trapeze and reach for the sky?
Yes, I can! This is the whole message and meaning of Christmas. In the final days of the universe Jesus says, “Now I am making the whole of creation new.”
But the ultimate meaning and vision of the Gospel does not await the end of time — but here and now — in the immediate experience of human life. Christianity is not a drug allowing us to surrender. It is news: the Good News. It is a proclamation that the human business is no longer being carried on as usual, that there is a new beginning. The eternal cycle of despair is broken, the holding pattern is no longer holding, the Gospel proclaims that today is different from yesterday, that we are not finished with life because God is not finished with us.
This is why Christmas means so much to us. Without it New Year’s Eve would be a parody, a farce, a bit of mock heroics. As if we could ever really change — ever really begin again. So January starts with hope. It is not just another month. It is a season when we struggle with our vision of life. It is an invitation to reconsider our lives. A quiet call to look at what we are tempted to think of as monotony and nothingness and instead, to discover life and movement. It is a challenge to view the commonplace and ordinary in a new way, to see the sacredness of our days and our lives which we treat so routinely.
Above all, January is a reminder that there is hope, that we can always begin again.