Fr John Bollan: The two faces of January

The Gates of Janus, after whom the month is named, in the Roman Forum (Getty)

Although our weekdays have mostly succumbed to the Norse and Anglo-Saxon influences on the English language, the months still carry a discernible echo of their Latin origins. January is derived from Janus, Rome’s two-faced god of boundaries and thresholds: his unique facial arrangement allowed him to look forwards and backwards simultaneously.

I often find there is a similar tension between my prospective and retrospective tendencies at this time of year. My looking back is often characterised by a rueful recognition of how few of those personal goals I had set were actually attained. As for the looking forward, well, all I can say is that my own half century is firmly on the horizon. Thirty was a breeze. Turning 40 didn’t bother me. Fifty, however, is a threshold I approach with trepidation (although obviously I would rather cross it than not).

When confronted with daunting prospects, my preferred tactic is usually distraction. For me, like many in the Catholic Church in Scotland, this year’s major distraction will be the centenary of the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act, when Catholic schools were persuaded to enter the state system. This resulted in a fairly unique arrangement which continues to baffle our English cousins to this day, whereby the state pays for our Catholic schools and the Church retains control over who is appointed to teach in those schools and the content of the religious education curriculum.

These areas of Church influence, along with the very existence of the schools themselves, is a source of provocation to those who object to faith-based education in principle, or who regard them as incubators of sectarianism. We are fairly used to batting away such baseless assertions, but I imagine the rhetoric will get ramped up as we mark the centenary.

I’m glad that the Church in Scotland, through the good offices of our own Education Service, has learned from the debacle over same-sex marriage. There the narrative was decisively shaped by those who quickly established themselves as pro-love, equality, commitment etc, leaving the Church scrabbling to find a position and a message which sounded anything other than “anti” those very things.

Now, thankfully, we have a clear message which is positive and celebratory: Catholic schools are good for Scotland. Schools the length and breadth of the country have been showcasing how that is no mere slogan. To give you some concrete examples, my parish primary school educates the Syrian refugees who were given refuge in our town. These children, uprooted from their homeland in appalling circumstances, now play and learn in safety alongside their Scottish classmates – and all of it under the watchful eye of St Joseph.

In our local secondary school, the young people have been showing, in firm rebuttal of that canard that “pro-life” only means “pre-birth”, that Catholic social teaching is the compass of their community activism. Layettes and food parcels are concrete expressions of the way they understand love as a “doing” word. These are just a few of the ways in which Catholic schools are good for Scotland (and the world).

This year also marks another centenary: the end of the Great War. After four years of mournful commemorations – from the beginning of the slaughter, through the centenaries of the Somme and Passchendaele – it’s good to mark the end of bloodshed. Or that particular bloodshed, at least. Guns never fall silent for very long.

Perhaps the reason the memory and the month of Janus endured was due to the role his “temple” played in marking the outbreak of peace in ancient Rome. In reality, this temple was probably more of a covered colonnade with gates at either end. When Rome was at peace, the gates were closed. Given Rome’s warlike nature, the gates were almost always open.

The first Roman emperor, Augustus, whose census set the scene for the Nativity, recorded that the gates of the temple were shut on no fewer than three occasions during his reign. According to the Kalenda, the liturgical proclamation of the birth of Christ which, alas, does not form part of our parish Christmas repertoire, Jesus was born during one of these rare moments when all the world was at peace and Janus’s doors were firmly closed.

Maybe there is some pagan wisdom in using January as a passage from the old year to the new: for declaring a truce with the past and making peace with the future. And there is a peace which follows surrender, whether it’s laying down your arms because you know you’re beaten, or finally giving in to God’s will, or accepting the fact that you’re hitting 50.

That said, my birthday is not for a few months yet. So I’ll keep you posted on my transition to the ranks of those aggressively targeted for life insurance and, in Scotland at least, on the receiving end of a special delivery from the NHS. If you’re in the know, you’ll catch my drift.

Fr John Bollan is parish priest of St Joseph’s in Greenock and an honorary teaching fellow at the University of Glasgow