I am fascinated by the concept of the Roman god Janus for whom January is named. Janus is depicted with two heads, one that looks back and the other looks forward. Unlike the human form of a Hebrew Jesus, whose teaching and life created a whole new moral force of compassion, the Roman gods were venerated for their function to support the supreme goal of Roman mythology, to maintain a mutual trust (fides) among human kind and the forces of nature and history. Janus played a special pivotal role with his associations with physical transitions and the abstract forms of change such as the transition from war to peace. I can easily imagine Janus was assigned a pivotal role overseeing the uncertainties of chaotic times not unlike our present.
As we review the past year and begin to look into 2024 we can understand why the Romans gave such prominence to the role of Janus. What sense could be made of the year past and what could be expected in the coming year? In the swirl of all the dynamic changes last year in our own era what are we to have learned? And what choices lie ahead of us now? Because these are indeed weighty questions we actually are unlikely to personally dwell much on them. We are content with the media’s retrospective photos and stories that highlighted 2023, and we pay some level of casual attention to the various political and cultural prognosticators as they attempt to suggest what might happen with the twists and turns of historical, political, and environmental events in the year ahead.
But deep inside us, when we actually pause to orient our minds, hearts and souls to this very uncertain future, there is an eeriness about it all. From a personal perspective, If Janus were still around I would likely want to offer him some serious propitiation with an earnest request for his powerful influence to maintain a mutual trust and fidelity that would somehow bring us safely through a crisis in our democracy, deep cultural divisions, and environmental challenges. I must admit I would also be skeptical about just how influential Janus might be if his world seemed to be in such upheaval as we are experiencing today.
Certainly one of the great gifts of our capacity as humans is to record our lives and tell our stories. I love history, all sorts of history - family history, American history, global history, among many others - and they all inform us with perspective on who we are today and where we might be going tomorrow and beyond. Much of our historical accounts are epic and inspiring stories of resilience and valor, and we need to honor these most deeply. But the human species is regrettably also capable of some of the most cruel and debasing of our mutual trust, and we need to learn from this part of history as well. I want to believe Janus would take that all into account as his two heads sagely rotate back and forth from past to present.
I don’t have a profound "Janus perspective” tonight, of course. But I will be going into the new calendar year allowing myself to hold a sacred, bi-visionary perspective of gratitude for all that has been part of our lives this past year - for better or worse - and sharing with you all a consciousness in this coming year of what it means to engage in Life with all its vicissitudes, surprises and wonders. I do worship a God of history and wonder, after all!
So here’s a new year’s toast to the Roman imagination and insight that led to the creation of a Janus concept of holding the past and the future in sacred trust. The Roman Empire did not persevere, of course, but I want to honor their profound wisdom in respecting the past and present with reverence.
Blessings and peace in this new calendar year,