There is a rhythm to life, to the seasons of the year, to the day, from its dawning to its close, to the history of the world. There is a rhythm to the liturgy of the Church, and there is a rhythm to the Bible, with its opening at the beginning of time and its conclusion at time’s end.
I am writing this on the last day of the year, the 31st of December, 2019. There are somewhat less than ten hours left of this year, which is about to come to its end. Tomorrow, of course, there will be a new beginning, the beginning of a new year. But the new develops from the old; it does not spring into being out of nowhere.
As the year ends, so will our life. There will come a day when we ourselves have only a few more hours of time, and then will be our entrance into eternity. O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort! as a German hymn has it. Eternity, thou word of thunder!
Every cycle of time has an end — the year, the month, the week, the day.
A day, a week, a month, a year,
Or far or near, or far or near!
Life’s eventide comes much too soon…
—Sir W.S. Gilbert, The Mikado
There is light, and there is darkness, day and night. Waking and sleeping, alternately, until the day we die. If our lives were not punctuated in this way, we would simply race toward death without pause.
What have we done with the past year? Where has it gone?
The year is dying, and soon it will be dead. So must we, also, die, and become a memory, as all those who have gone before us.
* * *
There is an organic rhythm to the life of the Church, in her liturgy, just as there is an organic rhythm in nature itself. The Church is a living, breathing organism, the Mystical Body, a living Body of a living Person — Jesus Christ — just as the physical body of Jesus Christ is the living body of a living person. One of the ways in which the Church lives and breathes is in her liturgy, with its cycle of seasons and of time, from First Vespers of Advent Sunday until the end of the next liturgical year. Advent, Christmas, Septuagesima, Lent, Easter. The seasons are marked, traditionally, by the Ember Days — it was (and is) traditional to fast for vocations on these days. The word “Ember” comes from the Latin name of these days, Quatuor Tempora, the four times.
It is important to mark time. It is important to mark the end of the year. It is not some horrible pagan practice that has replaced Christmas; no: it is an end and a beginning. The day, the year, time itself has a beginning and an end; that is part of God’s plan. Whether the end of the year should be marked with eating and drinking inordinate quantities is another question — perhaps it should be a time of greater reflection and solemnity. Indeed, it seems to me to be a time for reflection, as the end of the day is a time for the examination of one’s conscience. We can examine our conscience for the year just as much as for one day. Indeed, we can reflect on the whole decade just ending and what has happened in our lives over that time. In what have we sinned? In what have we done well? We can do penance for the former, if we have not done so already; and we can thank God for the latter. To Him be all the glory.
The liturgical day, with its canonical hours, and even with the morning Mass for those of us who are able to attend it, has, of its nature, a rhythm, and this developed organically. There is night-time prayer (and there are special graces attached to praying at night), and there is daytime prayer, prayer in the morning and prayer in the evening, in the Divine Office. It is the custom of many devout Catholics to say the rosary in the evening — this has been called “the evening Communion.”
Well, now we are at the evening of the year. Or its night, even. At the stroke of midnight, a new time will begin: a new year, a new decade, a new month, a new hour, a new morning.
Another stroke of time will come, a moment for which we must be ever prepared. We shall die — all of us — and we shall go to our own place. The entire point of our being on this earth, and the point of our religion, is to prepare us for that moment, the moment of death. If we have lived our lives as we ought, then we should have no reason to be afraid of death. And if we have not — and none of us, if we are honest, can say he has — then let us remember all that God has done for our salvation, receive the Sacraments of His Church, and never despair of His mercy. If we die in the friendship of God, then He will say to us those words we use to encourage and praise children here on Earth: “WELL DONE.”
* * *
And time itself shall have an end. No, despite all the evil we see before our eyes in the world and — how painful it is to say this — in the Church herself, that end is not yet. But “the sands of time are sinking,” and, when God sees fit, time shall be no more. And He shall come again to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom shall have no end. And on that day, the last day, not of one year only, nor of one human life, but of time itself, may we hear the words God has desired to utter to us since the Creation:
Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.