When we think of the new year, we tend to think of January 1. Some of us may have wondered at some point why September, the ninth month of the year, has a name that means seven. If we were curious enough to check, we found out that, before Julius Caesar, the Roman year began in March, making September the seventh month. So why does the Church celebrate the new year on September 1?
The short answer is that the first ecumenical council decided that. But it wasn’t an arbitrary decision. The Church Fathers drew on several traditions and practices in making their decision:
The Jewish civil calendar begins around September (being a lunar calendar, it does not follow a solar calendar precisely).
The feast beginning the year, Rosh Hashanah (or Yom Teruah, the Feast of Trumepts, cf. Lev. 23) commemorates the creation of Adam and Eve.
This was also a time of thanksgiving, close to the Feast of Harvest
Finally, it is on this feast that Jesus, the second Adam, enters the synagogue and reads from Scripture: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”
Thus, the feast is deeply rooted in Biblical tradition and celebrates both the creation and re-creation of humanity.
I believe it is no accident that this remembrance of the creation and re-creation of humanity is closely flanked by two major feasts of the Theotokos: her Nativity, on September 8, and her Dormition, on August 15. Thus, the ecclesiastical year takes us on a journey of re-creation as we see it embodied in the life of the Theotokos. She was offered to God at a young age by being taken to the temple, where she grew up in prayer. She gave her assent to God and thus became the dwelling place of God, the one who is wider than the heaven, the all-holy (panagia) and the mother of all those who worship her Son. Throughout her life she paid attention to her Son and kept things that he did or that were said about Him in her heart. At the end of her life, she fell asleep, was buried, and was then taken up bodily into heaven, as the One who is the life of all could not let her, the Mother of Life, to remain in corruption.
Each aspect of the life of the Theotokos has a corresponding element in our lives. The re-creation of humanity that she most fully embodied is to be embodied in our life as well. Just as Christ’s incarnation was not merely an illusion or theory, the re-creation of humanity that he accomplished should not be understood merely as theory, but should be embodied in each of our lives.
As the Theotokos was offered to God at a young age, so were many of us baptized in infancy, and those who were not baptized as infants offered themselves to Christ at some later point as they joined His Church. As she gave her consent to God, so are we called to give our consent to God and follow him in our lives. As Christ dwelt in her bodily, so He comes to dwell in us - at our baptism and in the sacrament of the Eucharist. As she paid attention to her Son and meditated in her heart on things concerning Him, so we are called to pay attention to the word (and Word) of God and meditate upon His teachings. And as she prepared for her departure and entrusted her soul into her Son’s hands, so we are called to prepare for the end of our lives by drawing ever nearer to Christ.
So, as January 1 is often a time to take stock of our physical lives and look for ways to make improvements, September 1 is a time to take stock of our spiritual lives. We meditate upon the life of the Theotokos and upon Christ’s refashioning of humanity. We give thanks for God’s gift of Himself that allows us to be made new and be transformed into His likeness and we re-dedicate ourselves to prayer and the study of Scripture.
May this new ecclesiastical year be one of spiritual renewal and growth for us all.
With love in Christ,