Betty White’s "last epic joke"

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Betty White’s “last epic joke”: The fallacy of naming years and the abiding faithfulness of God

January 3, 2022 -

Actress Betty White poses for a portrait on the set of the television show "Hot in Cleveland" in Studio City section of Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

Actress Betty White poses for a portrait on the set of the television show "Hot in Cleveland" in Studio City section of Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

Actress Betty White poses for a portrait on the set of the television show "Hot in Cleveland" in Studio City section of Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

Betty White’s television career spanned seven decades. The 2014 edition of Guinness World Records certified hers as the longest career ever for a female entertainer. The winner of multiple Emmy Awards, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1988 and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1995. When she hosted Saturday Night Live in May 2010, the show enjoyed its highest ratings in a year and a half. 

In preparation for her one hundredth birthday on January 17, People magazine featured her on its cover last week with the headline, “Betty White Turns 100!” Then, as you know, the famed actress died Friday morning at the age of ninety-nine. Some blamed the magazine for jinxing Ms. White. One person disagreed, tweeting, “I think Betty White would enjoy having made one last epic joke.” 

Of course, Christians know that life and what comes next are no joke: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). But there is something in us that doesn’t want to admit that it’s true for us. We understand in our conscious minds that death is real and that the mortality rate is 100 percent. We know that Jesus could return tomorrow, or we could go to him today. 

But as you read these words, do they feel real to you? Are you living in the same certainty that you could die today as that the sun will set tonight? If not, why not? And why does the question matter so powerfully as we begin this “new year” together? 

Why is today “January the third”? 

For what reason is this a “new year”? The trees and birds don’t know the difference. The sun rose on January 1 just as it did the day before. Why do we call today “January the third”? Why do we call it anything at all? 

There are practical reasons for assigning numbers and names to days, of course. Imagine planning for the future without such a practice, from making airline reservations to setting deadlines for school and work. But there’s a larger, deeper force at work here. 

Naming things began in the garden of Eden: “Out of the ground the Lᴏʀᴅ God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19). 

God had earlier told humans: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Part of having “dominion” over something is naming it. Thus parents name their children and children name their pets. 

Why Davy Crockett named his rifle 

There is a useful function here, of course: parents can call their children away from a busy street more easily if they use the name their child recognizes as uniquely theirs. Astronomers name stars and planets so they can study them with greater precision. Botanists do the same with plants, as do entomologists with insects. 

But there is an underlying psychological and very human force at work here as well. We want to name the stars above us whether we are astronomers or not. We want to know the names of plants and animals even if we are not botanists or veterinarians. 

Psychologists say we name people and things to infer power over them. Brand experts call this “taming,” bringing the object closer to ourselves and forming emotional bonds with it. We give names to machines to feel that they work for us, such as Davy Crockett’s naming his rifle “Old Betsy.” And we name things we cannot control in nature to nonetheless feel some power over them, such as Hurricane Katrina and the “Wolf Moon” coming on January 17. 

In this sense, we named the “year” that began Saturday “2022” to identify it for contracts, to date events, and so on, but also to “tame” it, to give ourselves a sense of control over the future it represents. 

Welcome to the year 5782 

The Jewish people do not do this. The Hebrew names for the days translate simply to “First Day,” “Second Day,” and so on. The seventh day is Shabbat, the Sabbath, which translates the Hebrew for “rest” or “cease work.” It is the only day that receives its own nonnumerical name since it is the day when God “rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2). As a result, their days remind them of God’s creation of each day. 

Hebrew months were originally numbered beginning with the month in which the Exodus occurred. Thus, any month reminded them of the Exodus: “six months since the month of the Exodus,” and so on. Names were added only after the people returned from the Babylonian exile and wanted to continue using names to which they had become accustomed. 

Jewish years are calculated from the creation of the world in common tradition; 2022 is 5782 in their calculation. But this did not begin until the twelfth century when the Jewish philosopher Maimonides established the timeframe for the traditional date of Creation. 

As a result, every day reminds the Jewish people of its relation to their Sabbath; every month reminds them of their Exodus from slavery into the Promised Land by divine grace; every year testifies to their creation and the providential design of God. They name the year not to control it but to honor and serve the God who makes each day and controls our future. 

A promise to learn and claim 

We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. For today, let’s choose to be Jewish about 2022. Let’s begin a year filled with uncertainties and fears not by naming and “taming” our future but by submitting our lives and moments each day to our Creator and King. 

To this end, I invite you to claim and even memorize with me this promise as a theme for all that lies ahead: “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lᴏʀᴅ never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21–23). 

Why do you need the steadfast love, unending mercy, and great faithfulness of Jesus today

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