For many years, New Year’s Day has been a time of looking back and looking forward—a day of two faces. This becomes all the more apparent when you consider the wide range of events that has taken place on this day. Great triumphs for freedom and life come right alongside tragic examples of prejudice and unnecessary loss of life.
January 1, 46 BCE—Julius Caesar declares January 1 as New Year’s Day. He reasons that the month named after the god of two faces—one looking forward and one looking backward—is a good time to open the door on a new year. As he celebrates new beginnings, he simultaneously orders a put-down of the Jewish rebellion in Galilee. Witnesses say the streets run red with blood.
January 1, 404 AD—The last known gladiatorial competition in Rome takes place. Over the years, the gladiator games of ancient Rome had grown from a way to honor the dead into bloody entertainment for thousands of people. According to tradition, the Emperor Honorius declares the end to the gladiatorial contests after the Egyptian monk, Telemachus, is killed while trying to stop a competition.
January 1, 1581—Four years before, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews must listen to the Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues. Now, he orders his troops to confiscate all Jewish sacred literature, and thousands of Jewish people are killed during the campaign.
January 1, 1773—The former slave trader John Newton preaches a New Year’s Day sermon, and “Amazing Grace,” a hymn he wrote, is made public for the first time and used as an accompaniment.
January 1, 1804—Jean-Jacques Dessalines declares Haiti’s independence from France. With this, declaration, Haiti becomes the first black republic and first independent country in the West Indies.
January 1, 1863—Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation takes effect. All slaves in southern states are declared to be “thenceforward, forever free.” The motivation for the war takes a turn as it changes from a battle to preserve the United States into a battle for freedom.
January 1, 1934—Nazi Germany enacts the “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring.” With this, any member of the German population who suffered from schizophrenia, manic-depressive insanity, epilepsy, blindness, or deafness, among other ailments, could be summarily sterilized and prevented from ever having children.
January 1, 1959—Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista, flees to the Dominican Republic, paving the way for Fidel Castro’s forces to triumphantly enter Havana seven days later.
January 1, 2013—A New Year’s fireworks show is held in Ivory Coast, a country in West Africa, to celebrate a return to peace after a disputed presidential election led to months of violence. The celebration goes horribly awry, however, when 60 people are killed and many more injured in a stampede in Ivory Coast in West Africa.
So what do we do in the face of such stark contrast? I think we do the only thing we can do: we remember the past and mourn those who have been lost. We look to the future and pray for grace and mercy in the days ahead. Then we live our lives today, refusing to become paralyzed by our failures or our fears.
“The Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which [God] has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.” ~C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters