How do you feel about the start of the New Year? Does the celebration of Mary as Mother of God help you to
orient yourself as you begin it? What does this feast mean to you personally?
The Entrance Antiphon proclaims, “A light will shine on us this day....” God’s light shone in a special way when the Church declared it a dogma of faith at the Council of Ephesus, 431 A.D., that Mary is rightly called “Mother of God.” This doctrine was defined, not because of what it says about Mary, but because of what it says about Jesus; that we must not “divide” Jesus by separating his humanity from his divinity, as some at the Council would have done by specifying that Mary was mother of Jesus’ humanity — or of his body only — but not of his divinity, and therefore not “mother of God.” The Church’s answer was that our mothers are the mothers of all we are, whole and entire; and therefore Mary is the mother of everything Jesus is as both God and man.
The dogma was defined to say something about Jesus. But it also says something about Mary and about us. In the Prayer after Communion we “proclaim the Virgin Mary to be the mother of Christ and the mother of the Church,” and we pray that “our communion with her Son” will “bring us to salvation.”1 What this says is that if Mary is really the Mother of all Jesus is, and if we have really “become Christ” by Baptism, by being incorporated into his body, then Mary is really our Mother as well. And we are really “sons and daughters of the Father.” Our “salvation” is to share in God’s divine life through our union with Jesus. If that union is real, then everything that follows from it is real also.
This tells us that, as we begin the New Year, we need to do so conscious of what we really are, of how we are really called to live, and of what we are really called to do, precisely as divine-human continuations of the divine-human life of Jesus on earth.
1 Literally, the Latin text asks that “your heavenly sacraments,” which “we have joyfully received” will “lead us to eternal life.” Receiving the sacraments expresses and increases the communion with Jesus we received at Baptism with the gift of “grace,” which means the “favor” of sharing in God’s own life.
The Responsorial (Psalm 72) has us asking — for the New Year — “May God bless us in his mercy.”
In Numbers 6:22-27 the blessing God tells Moses to ask for the People is all about knowing God:
May Yahweh let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you... show you his face and give you peace (New Jerusalem Bible).
We were taught as children that we were created to “know, love and serve God.” This is a marvelous formula. It gives us the basic, simple principle we need for self-orientation. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we have a sure compass that tells us how to direct our lives. We know what God is giving us life for and how he wants us to use it. This is priceless.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, gives a slightly different version of this formula. He says we were created to “praise, reverence and serve God.” Basically, he replaces “knowing” with the first action that should follow from it — praising — and “loving” with the attitude that, throughout all of his writings, he teaches is the foundational requirement for loving God as we should: reverence, or acknowledgment of the distance between God and us — distance God overcame in Jesus by taking flesh as a human like ourselves. Ignatius would say the first service we owe to God is praise.
We are not sufficiently conscious of this. Today is a good time to recall it —and to make a “New Year’s resolution” to make praising God a more conscious, constant part of our life.
The Mass is a good place to begin.
Praising God is not what most Catholics are most consciously thinking of on their way to Mass. Actually, they may not be thinking of anything much at all except what is on the car radio and what the kids are fighting about in the back seat. But New Year’s would be a good time to change this. It would be a very enlightened New Year’s resolution to decide — as a family, if possible — to jump into Mass praising God like a cheering section!
Farfetched? Unrealistic? Something nobody would go along with? Okay. The same could have been said (and was said; I was there!) in the ‘sixties and afterwards, when we fought for racial integration; for putting the Mass into a language people can understand; for giving the laity a more active role in the Church as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, religion teachers, theology professors and parish administrators; for banning smoking in public places; for adapting our speech to avoid unconsciously belittling women; for just treatment of migrant workers; for raising people’s consciousness about the evil of war, about human rights and the ideal of nonviolence; for recycling and concern about ecology; for exposing child abuse; for recognizing the promotion of social justice as a “constitutive element” of Christian life; for ordaining married men as deacons; for stricter laws against drunk driving; for anti-pollution measures such as unleaded gas; for shattering the “glass ceiling” that kept women from higher positions in corporate management; for enforcing security measures such as seat belts and helmets for bike riders; for playground safety; “sell by” dates on food products and required hand-washing for restaurant employees; for health foods; and efforts to discourage fast-food obesity. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Before these changes took place, “general opinion” would have thought most of them a pipe dream.
So is it unrealistic to think that almost overnight Catholics could start coming to Mass to praise God? And that they will in fact praise him as a united community — in song and spontaneity, through “full, conscious, active participation” in the liturgy? A new year is beginning; why not start doing your part now? The liturgy encourages us to hope: “May God bless us in his mercy.”
In Luke 2:16-21 the shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard.” Haven’t we seen and heard the same thing? And more! Who knows that we have? Do even our children know?
Mary “treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.” We know her heart was full of praise. But she also expressed it. The words of her “Magnificat” to Elizabeth were certainly not the last time she spoke her praise out loud! 1
Before the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II, January 1 was the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. “Around 500 AD the Eastern Church celebrated a ‘Day of the Theotokos’ [Dei Genetrix or “Mother of God”] either before or after Christmas....” In the West, since 1914 Catholics grew up celebrating the feast of “the Motherhood of Mary” on October 11. When, in 1974, Pope Paul VI made January 1 the feast of “Mary, Mother of God” he also designated it as the “World Day of Peace”:
to renew the adoration rightfully to be shown to the newborn Prince of Peace... and to pray to God, through the intercession of the Queen of Peace, for the priceless gift of peace; and because of... the fact that the octave of Christmas coincides with a day of hope, New Year's Day. 2
In the Gloria we repeat the angels’ message, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” We need to make this conscious, fervent praise.
The Gospel continues: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child.” Circumcision was the sign of accepting the Covenant God made with his People. In Galatians 4:4-7 Paul casts new light on the Covenant:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to deliver from the law those who were subject to it, so that we might receive our status as adopted children....
So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir....
To be subject to God’s law is not slavery; but a spirit of slavish obedience can make it that. If our focus in religion is on law-observance, we have not yet absorbed the Good News. Jesus came so that we might know the Father as both our Father and his. This is not just learned, intellectual or “catechetical” knowledge; it is an experience of the Holy Spirit:
The proof that you are children is the fact that God has sent forth into our hearts the Spirit of his Son crying, “Abba! Father!”
We know God as Father in a way deeper than thought. We “know we know” him by the results in our life: a deep, underlying awareness that we are loved and cared for as children; a trusting desire that the Father’s “will be done,” even when we don’t understand it; an assurance that his home is our home:
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3
The New Year is a time for hope — hope based on new understanding of the New Covenant. We need to pray, “May God bless us in his mercy,” and praise him because we know he does.
Am I more motivated now to make praising God a strong element of my religion?
Renew the Mass. Begin every celebration consciously and enthusiastically praising God. Begin with the entrance hymn!
1 Luke 1:46-55.
2 See www.churchyear.net, and Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, Feb. 2, 1974, no.5. For the popes’ World Day of Peace messages see www.vatican.va. See especially John Paul’s radical message for 1993.
3 John 14:2. And see Matthew 11:27.