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Pacific Ponderings

January, Janus, and Jesus

The name January is derived from the Roman god Janus. Janus is the god of doorways, gates, and thresholds; and, by extension, of beginnings, endings, and transitions. Janus was depicted with two faces, one looking forward and one looking backward. The relevance of Janus to January is clear. The turn of the year marks a time of endings and beginnings, a time when we stand on a temporal threshold looking back on the past year and forward on the year to come.

People traditionally welcome the New Year by staying up till midnight partying. Susan and I are not much for midnight revelry. Rather, we like to wake up early on New Year’s morning to reflect together on the year that has passed and the year that is to come. It is a time for counting blessings, lamenting losses, laughing at last year’s follies, and laying plans for the future. Susan and I imitate Janus on New Year’s Day by looking backward on the past and forward to the future.

A new year offers us hope that we can start again, a little wiser and with a clean slate. This idea is figured in the familiar image of Father Time, passing both his hour-glass and hard-won wisdom to Baby New Year. “Hope springs eternal” wrote Alexander Pope. And never more than at every New Year. This is evidenced each January by ads for diets, exercise equipment, spa memberships, and self-improvement schemes and books of every kind. These all speak to our hope that this year we will do better. This year we will get out of debt. This year we will exercise every day. This year we will lose 10 pounds and keep them off.

The problem is that most of us never do! We need to lose the same 10 pounds next year and every year. We make resolutions and break resolutions. We are like those wretched figures in Hades who are condemned to repeat the same tasks over and over eternally—like Sisyphus rolling the rock partway up the mountain only to have it roll back down again.

How miserable it would be if we were encumbered eternally by the same bad habits, trapped in futile repetitive cycles of sin, never able to close the calendar on the past. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins imagines this hellish condition in the conclusion of one of his dark sonnets, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”:

I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

But this need not be so! We need not be our fallen, sweating selves forever. Through the Atonement, there is hope for genuine new beginnings. Real change is possible when our resolutions are linked to Christ’s redemptive power, when our grit is joined to his grace.

Just as Christ’s birth bisects the calendar into a before and after—into BC and AD—he can bisect our lives. Through the miracle of conversion, Saul can become Paul. Alma the apostate rebel can become Alma prophet and priest. And ordinary people like you and me can turn their lives around, making and keeping covenants that open up a changed future not only for themselves but for generations to come.

Through Christ, we have hope to be freed from the bondage of sin, hope to be born again, hope to become new creatures as fresh as Baby New Year. The great promise of Christianity is that, through Christ, any day can become a New Year’s Day for the soul!