Alternative Calendars: Time and Time Again
As we cross from the old year into the new – but wait a minute. Doesn’t the New Year begin on January 1st? Not necessarily, since there are many people for whom alternative reckonings overlap the secular calendar.
Why alternative calendars? Well if you ask those of us who follow them, you will find that it’s because we think a more important cycle exists than that of the regular calendar. For Jews this cycle begins with the New Year, usually in mid to late September, and the High Holy Days continue until Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, reflection, and prayer. These high holy days inaugurate a new year in which the rehearsal of historic traditions brings new opportunities for self-understanding, compassion and service. Orthodox Christians also begin a new year on September 1st, and in this new time we commemorate the Cross and the Virgin Mary, one the instrument of destruction and one the human instrument of life, both of them important to our faith as models for our faith and its origin in sacrifice and self-giving.
Yehezkel Kaufmann, a great Jewish scholar, maintained that the difference between the Jews and all their surrounding neighbors was not monotheism, pure and simple. Kaufmann claimed that the great difference was that God was no longer bound to limitations, that there was no realm beyond the Divine to which even God had to conform. The issue, in short, is not One God versus many gods; it is One God who is the Creator of both time and of history, as well as of the natural realm, over against the gods who are ultimately at the mercy of forces even beyond themselves. For Moses, the gods were dead. The fates are overcome; we need no more magic or superstition. God cannot be manipulated.
Thomas Cahill, in his masterful work The Gifts of the Jews, writes that the revolution begun by Israel was primarily that of introducing the concept of historical time. Instead of holding onto the cyclical notions of her surrounding neighbors, for Israel time was linear. Time had a beginning at Creation, and thus it followed logically that there would also be an end to history. Meanwhile, we live in the only place we can occupy: the here and now, shaped by our history and aimed at our future.
Think about this a moment and you will see that this set of concepts and beliefs, inaugurated by the ancient Israelites, ushered in a radically other way of thinking. Surrounding people – the Egyptians, the Sumerians – sought a connection to the eternal but they believed this happened, so to speak, outside of time. As Cahill points out, the Israelites were the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise. And just imagine: even God is about to do something New, says Isaiah. That was a revolution. History becomes the bearer of God’s unveiling, even until the end, when the Lamb says, in Revelation 21, “Behold I make all things new.”
Since we understand God through historical processes, it makes sense that we would celebrate those moments in time and space that had and continue to have the greatest impact upon our communities. Rabbi Michael Goldberg calls these “master stories,” for Christians the story of Jesus’ ministry leading up to the cross and resurrection, and for Jews the story of oppression and slavery leading up to freedom under Moses. Each new year, these master stories shape our memory and our hope. Because these stories give our lives meaning, we have alternative calendars in which Easter and Exodus play the central roles.
published 19 Sept 09