How do we understand our time in history? Over the past several decades it has become more common to see historical events qualified as having happened in the “Common Era” (C.E.) or “Before the Common Era” (B.C.E.). These terms are used in place of the traditional “Before Christ” (B.C.) and “Anno Domini” (A.D.), which is Latin for the “In the Year of the Lord.” Proponents of the new terms usually offer two reasons for the change. First, they argue that they are religiously neutral, and thus more acceptable to non-Christian cultures that have adopted the Gregorian calendar, which uses the birth of Christ as the reference point of history. Second, they argue that it is more historically precise. The gospels tell us that Christ was born during the reign of King Herod the Great. But the consensus of modern historians is that Herod died between what we know of as the years 6-4 B.C. Thus, it’s very possible that Christ was already six years old when the “Year of the Lord” commenced! And so, for the sake of accuracy and cultural sensitivity, the “Common Era” is offered as a solution.
But this way of measuring history has an effect on our conception of time because it detaches history from any meaningful event. All of the great calendars used throughout history used a particular event as a reference point. The Ancient Greeks had a common calendar that used the first Olympiad as the reference point for the passage of years. In the time of the Roman Empire, many territories dated their calendars from the establishment of Roman rule in that region. The Hijri calendar used by Muslims puts us in the 1444th year since Muhammed made his journey to Medina. The “Common Era” calendar, however, offers no historical reference point with which we can understand ourselves. Detached from the birth of Jesus, it becomes a random, meaningless date. With no grounding in a significant historical occurrence, history is reduced to the relentless passage of units of time, within which occur particular events which have brought us to the moment in which we find ourselves sitting before a computer screen, reading this weird article – a moment no more or less meaningful than the random moment 2022 years ago that somehow initiated something we now call the “Common Era.”
There’s something silly about the “Common Era,” because it cannot be disassociated from the Birth of Christ. Both take Our Lord’s birth as their essential reference point, even if it’s not “scientifically precise.” More significantly, the desire for scientific precision ends up rendering the passage of time meaningless, which is not silly. Indeed, it is the most devastating effect of this novel approach to history, embraced in the name of neutrality. Except, of course, it’s not neutral. And time cannot be meaningless, for God has lived in time. At least, that’s true if 2022 years ago (or so) there took place the great and mysterious irruption of the divine into the mundane – the coming of the Son of God into the world, born of a Virgin in a manger in Bethlehem. In the Lord Jesus, Life and Truth and Love Himself inhabits Creation, making time and space the arena of our redemption and sanctification. The Incarnation of the Son of God is the singular event of human history. It is the hinge upon which all things turn, and something that should fill our hearts with wonder and joy this Christmas, in the Year of the Lord 2022.