Why Ring in the New Year by Honoring the Mother of God?
On the first of January every year, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. (A solemnity is a feast of "the highest degree" which is "reserved for the most important mysteries of faith.") Mary’s extraordinarily close relationship with Christ causes her to be intimately involved in all feasts, both major and minor, having to do with Christ Himself; the Resurrection, the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple are only a few of the many feasts related to Mary throughout the Catholic liturgical year. However, the Catholic Church honors Mary so deeply that the Church has dedicated the first of every year to her person in particular. The fact that this day is dedicated to Mary using her title of “Mother of God” shows us the meaning of true greatness. Mary, in her life on earth, was great because of her relationship to God. It is important for us to reflect on this to understand that, in the same way, we in our own lives on earth are only great insofar as we reflect God in his goodness. This feast shows us beautiful and fundamental truths about our faith, and how we may grow closer to Jesus through Mary.
History of the Feast
Although Mary has been honored by the Church essentially for as long as the Church has existed, it is only relatively recently that her feast as the Mother of God began to be celebrated on the first of January. Up until that point, the Church celebrated her motherhood of Christ in various other capacities. For many years, the first of every January had been celebrated as the octave of the Nativity. According to the Gospels, this day was the day upon which the child was circumcised and given the name Jesus. Thus Mary’s motherhood was celebrated at least indirectly at this time, and as this feast was celebrated in individual churches and parishes, many prayers and hymns were said and sung honoring Mary as the mother of God. As time went on, Catholics began more intentionally to devote feasts to Mary in her role as Mother of God. Throughout the world, Mary was honored as Mother of God, and many Catholics began to ask for her intercession for safe deliveries and healthy children.
In the year 1969, Pope Paul VI issued the apostolic letter Mysterii Paschalis, which reorganized the Catholic liturgical year and formalized the celebrations of both Christ and the saints in this calendar. Pope Paul VI decreed that January first should mark the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, and also commemorate the Holy Name of Jesus.
Why We Celebrate Mary on the First of the New Year
Several years after deciding that the feast of Mary, Mother of God, should be celebrated by all Catholics on the first day of every new year, Pope Paul VI issued another apostolic letter entitled Marialis Cultus, or Marian Devotion. This apostolic letter, written in 1974, sought to clarify the ways in which the Catholic Church honored Mary. One of the aims of Marialis Cultus was to provide guidelines for devotions to the Blessed Virgin, so that all celebrations and devotions – both public and private – should be aligned with Catholic theological doctrine.
The document, however, did not exclusively focus on rules and guidelines, but also made sure to establish the theological and pastoral importance of Marian devotion in the life of every Catholic. Pope Paul VI also detailed the reasoning behind choosing the first day of the new year for the feast of Mary, Mother of God. He wrote that the solemnity “is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation,” adding that the feast is meant also to exalt the dignity which Mary possessed in her role as the Mother of God. By celebrating this feast on the first day of the new year, we as Catholics can recall how the first step of every journey should be a fiat like Mary’s, a constant yes to the will of God in our lives.
Beginning Our Journey to Christ through Mary
Although it is helpful to consider the history which brings about our modern Catholic feast days, understanding the history is not to comprehend the full picture. We are still left with this question: what do feast days, and what does this particular feast of Mary, mean in my life?
I often think of the writings of Flannery O’Connor when I think of the importance of Mary in the life of a Catholic. O’Connor suffered from lupus, the autoimmune disease which caused her great pain and would later end her life at the young age of 39. During her treatments for lupus, which would cause her great sleeplessness due to both the pain she endured and the particular medication she was given, she wrote thoughtful reflections on her suffering and how it pertained to her relationship with Christ and with Catholicism.
She wrote one particular reflection about the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe." On this topic, she wrote: “Since then I have come to think of sleep as metaphorically connected with the mother of God. Hopkins said she was the air we breathe, but I have come to realize her most in the gift of going to sleep. Life without her would be equivalent to me to life without sleep and as she contained Christ for a time, she seems to contain our life in sleep for a time so that we are able to wake up in peace.”
This beautiful parallel is, I think, both a deeply theological and a practically helpful way to consider the role of Mary in each of our lives as a Catholic. In her own life, Mary was a constant reflection of the love of Christ, and reflected his glory just as the moon reflects the sun. In her role as a reflection of God’s glory, she becomes a wonderful path to Christ, and is able to bridge the gap between fallen humanity and her son’s divinity. Thus she prepares us for life with Christ, just as sleep prepares us for our waking life.
Learning from Mary in the New Year
In light of Mary mediating the path between earth and heaven and so between humanity and Christ, let us think about how we may celebrate the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, in this New Year. The New Year often brings about a multitude of resolutions, great and small, but often they relate more towards personal habits and the like rather than religious or spiritual improvement.
There are several ways in which we can incorporate the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, into our New Year’s resolutions. One of these ways is to see each event in our lives as a path towards God, just as Mary herself is a path towards her son in heaven. We can also model our daily lives after Mary’s and do all things not for our own personal glory but rather for the glory of God. In every event and happening in our lives, it is of utmost spiritual importance that we set aside our own plans, and welcome the grace of God into our lives with the same fiat that Mary spoke many years ago. In this New Year, let us pray to become more like Mary and live our lives with humility, obedience to God’s will and love.