Why celebrate the New Year?

If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day ’til eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you. — “Time in a Bottle,” Jim Croce

watchThe new year doesn’t really wait for the ball to drop in New York City, but it seemed that way to me as a kid. Every New Year’s Eve my family would huddle in front of the TV to watch that illuminated globe descending slowly on a rope, skillfully handled, I imagine, by a couple of muscled longshoremen fortified against the cold by hot coffee and a small flask.

When the globe finished its descent, we’d give each other a rousing Happy New Year cheer, salute with raucous noise-makers, and maybe stumble through Auld Lang Syne before wandering off to bed, briefly wondering what the new year might hold before falling asleep.

(Now that I’m older, and staying awake until midnight is such a challenge, it seems to me that we could legislate something I might call New Year’s Eve Sleep Savings Time. For that one night, midnight would be shifted ahead to 8pm, allowing us geezers to party hard and still get to bed by 9 or 10pm. Great idea, don’t you think?)

The original Times Square ball has been redesigned several times. The latest model is a behemoth techno-marvel of Waterford crystal and high-intensity LEDs, tipping the scales at almost 6 tons! The longshoremen are long gone. Like everything else, the ball drop is now carefully choreographed by a 16-year-old computer geek brandishing a Linux laptop and a can of Red Bull.

The idea for the Times Square ball was originally borrowed from seamen. Time balls were invented so that mariners could synchronize their chronometers before a long voyage. While latitude (the distance from the poles) can be determined at sea by a careful measuring of the sun and stars, longitude (the distance traveled around the circumference of the earth) can only be measured by accurate time-keeping. (See The Navigator to learn about John Harrison’s elegant solution to the problem of measuring longitude.)

At many ports, a time ball would be hoisted aloft where it could be observed by ships in the harbor. At precisely 1pm each day, the ball would begin to drop, signaling ships’ captains to set their chronometers. Following that tradition, the Times Square ball originally began its descent precisely at midnight. These days, the ball begins dropping just before midnight, leading to a group countdown in the final seconds.

Why do we make such a big deal out of the New Year?

Is it a salute to celestial mechanics? A toast to the sun for holding us safely in orbit as we hurdle through space at 67,000 mph!? Is it a chance to honor unsung heroes like Johannes Kepler and Galileo, who first sorted out how the sun and planets and stars move through the heavens?

Or is the New Year more like the celebration that takes place at the end of a marathon, when the runners stumble across the finish line and are embraced by their supporters for having endured the pain and finished the race? Do we all feel a bit like marathon runners by the time December 31 rolls around, straining for the tape, relieved to be finished?

Some do, of course. We greet the end of the year with a mixture of emotions. Sadness and joy. Relief and expectation. Apprehension and anticipation. We have a sense of finishing something, and at the same time a sense of curiosity (perhaps even worry) about what lies ahead.

Because the race isn’t really over yet, and the earth has already begun its next circuit around the sun.

And if we are not running pointlessly like hamsters on a wheel in a cage, then we must be running on a very long track that God has laid out for us.

Either the earth circles the sun because it is trapped in the grip of gravity and inevitability, or because God has created time and placed it in a bottle — this universe — both for our pleasure and to create an historic opportunity to carry out His mysterious plans — with our help.

Which is it?

LORD, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered — how fleeting my life is. You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to You; at best, each of us is but a breath. — Psalm 39:4-5, NLT

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. — 1 Corinthians 9:24-26, NLT

New Year’s is a celebration of the gift of time. We have each been given a brief moment in history to tickle our curiosity about God, to seek and know the Lord Jesus Christ, to enjoy His creation and run the race He has laid out for us.

Unfortunately, we can’t hoard time in a bottle. We can only use it, for good or for evil, to serve God or ourselves, until time runs out.

May 2009 be the year when you discover the eternal, loving God, and his remarkable Son Jesus Christ.

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  1. Thank you, Charlie, for the reminders of who is in charge of our days. Here is a favorite verse of mine on this topic, from the NIV, Isaiah 33:6:

    He will be the sure foundation for your times,

    a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure.

  2. It is a celebration of the gift of time. I feel that more, as I grow older.

    I went to bed early, as is becoming usual. 🙂

  3. It was the Romans that are creators of the calendar, we celebrate because it is the mark of a new point, a scientifically proven point, a point that we pass in time and space that will not arrive for another 365 days! The new year celebration is like a global race that we all take part in, we each do our share which began with the Romans.

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