Here’s Why Catholics Go to Mass on New Year’s Day
You may know that New Year’s Day is a Holy Day of Obligation. (If you didn’t before, you do now!) While it may seem like a grim responsibility when given the term “obligation,” it is actually an invitation to start the New Year in a posture of prayer and receptivity to grace, imitating Mary, Mother of God. Let’s take a look at the obligation, celebration, and invitation of the first day of the new year.
Why has the Church set forth certain days as “holy days of obligation” for participation in the Mass? We find the designation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC): “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor” (CCC 2042). This is noted as the first of several “precepts” for participation in the life of the Church, or minimum requirements of the Catholic Christian.
“The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor” (CCC 2041).
These requirements are not a set of rules without meaning. The intent is to “grow in love of God and neighbor,” which is the true focus of our lives as Christians. Certain actions aid us in spiritual growth, such as participation in the Holy Eucharist. As the Catechism says, we are “nourished by liturgical life.” What better time to receive spiritual nourishment than at the start of a new year?
On January 1, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. In addition to thinking of this solemnity as a Holy Day of Obligation, we can also think of it as a sort of Catholic Mother’s Day. Because as the Mother of God, Mary is also the Mother of the Church and all Her members (see CCC 963 – 970).
What does your family do to celebrate Mother’s Day? Mine gathers for a nice meal, adorning the table with flowers and offering a few small gifts. As many family members as possible come together to be with the matriarch of the family. I know that what means the most to my mother and mother-in-law is the presence of those gathered and the care put into the gathering.
And so it is on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Our Church family gathers for the most important meal any of us ever partakes in – the Holy Mass. We adorn the Church with flowers and offer songs of praise for Mary. We give Mary the gift of our presence, attention, and reverence. It must give Mary great joy to see her children gathered in worship of her Son, receiving His body, just as she received Him into her own body at the Annunciation. Just as our own mothers rejoice at the union of their families on special days, Mary rejoices at the unity of the Church family at Mass.
The timing of this Solemnity is not to be ignored. It may seem obvious to point out that the Christmas season extends beyond Christmas Day. However, in the larger context of American culture, Christmas is “done” on December 25: radio stations switch back to pop music, stores remove Christmas merchandise, and trees are hauled to the curb for trash pick-up. Not so in the Church. We continue celebrating the mystery of the Incarnation through the Epiphany on January 6. The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God falls on the final day of the Christmas octave.
As we continue to rejoice in the reality of the Incarnation, God become Man, we remember the holy vessel whose courageous and faithful “yes” birthed our Savior. A Jesuit priest I know would send his mother flowers on his own birthday every year until her passing. At Christmas we praise God for the gift of His Son, and we praise Him for the gift of Mary’s role in birthing His earthly life.
January 1, of course, is also the beginning of a new year in the Roman Calendar. It is not the beginning of our liturgical year, which begins on the first Sunday of Advent. Even so, January 1 is seen as a time for setting new resolutions to break bad habits, build good ones, and generally have a “better year” than the one before. Any resolution we make to better ourselves can be encouraged by looking to Mary for her example, advice, and assistance. She is not just our Mother in the historical sense of giving birth to Jesus, our Brother; she is our Mother in the here and now. Consider what French Jesuit Alexander de Rouville says of Mary in his book, The Imitation of Mary:
“… when we pray through the intercession of Mary, it is her high position and her dignity as God’s Mother that speak in our favor. Recall that God Himself chose to be subject to her on earth. Will He have less regard for her now that she reigns with Him in heaven? He has entrusted to her, as it were, the general disposition of all His blessings and it pleases Him to give us a share of them through her” (Rouville 287).
This New Year’s Day, take your cares to our Lord Jesus through His Mother’s intercession. We can be confident that the grace we receive at the Eucharist is sufficient for all our needs, and that every prayer we utter is heard and answered. It is God alone who enables us to become who He created us to be. Let us begin the year by asking Him for the grace we need to be our true selves, and thus to imitate Mary, who was fully herself in the truest sense.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994.
Rouville, Alexandre-Joseph de, and Matthew J. OConnell. Imitation of Mary: in Four Books. Catholic Book Pub., 1985.