NEW YEAR’S Day 2001 marks the end of a debate which will not surface for another hundred years: the debate about when a century begins.
One side of the debate argues from arithmetic and logic: The first century of the present system began presumably with the year 1 and ended after a hundred years, that is, at the end of the year 100. Assuming that every century since has had a hundred years, the 21st century begins with 2001 and finishes at the end of 2100.
The other side argues from analogy to the odometer: The excitement of watching a car odometer, slight as it is, comes when, for example, the numbers change from 79999 to 80000. (It does not actually mean that the car has gone 80000 miles; close, but not quite.) So the thrill comes in watching the years change from 1999 to 2000.
And on December 31, 1999, worldwide television declared the winner was the odometer. The fireworks happened when the numbers changed, not when the century actually ended.
The good news is that none of us who have endured this dreary debate will ever have to do so again.
What makes it all even more bizarre is that none of the dates and numbers have any connection with natural or historical reality.
The year 2000 may mark two millennia from the birth of Christ, but the likelihood is that the figure is out by a few years.
New Year’s Day, January 1, is not connected to any natural phenomenon. It is near the winter solstice, but not on it.
And the same is true for other measurements of time. “Month” was once connected to a cycle of the moon, but we have 13 such cycles in a year, yet only 12 “months”.
I find it interesting that the Christian tradition has preserved the natural roots of our greatest festival, Easter, growing as it does out of the timing of Passover, because it is connected to the first full moon after the spring equinox (in the northern hemisphere).
At the same time as we preserve more connectedness to the natural order than does the secular calendar, the Jewish tradition (which we follow) has contributed to the world the only measure of time with no natural roots, the seven-day week, rooted in the story of creation as told in Genesis.
This unit of time, with only supernatural roots, has proven durable in cultures which have never heard the story in Genesis 1, and has resisted attempts to make it more numerically sophisticated, as in the 10-day week introduced after the French revolution.
I observe that increasingly calendars are printed in a way that obscures the pattern of the week that Jews and Christians cherish, that is, from the first day (the Christian Lord’s Day) to the seventh (the Jewish Sabbath), preferring to start on Monday with the five working days and finish with the weekend. And I suspect that pattern will eventually prevail, with the result that the supernatural roots of this way of measuring time will become as obscured as the natural ones are.
At one level, none of this matters at all. The sun rises and sets; the seasons follow in order, no matter how we name and number things. But it helps to have reminders in our calendars that all this is the gift of God. Anything that reminds us of our participation in the natural order, as distinct from our mere domination and exploitation of it, is a grace to be cherished. Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.