The new year begins with celebration. There is hope in the air. A new page is turned in human history and we all look forward to the new year and what it promises.
People anticipate the good things that lie ahead in the coming year, perhaps a personal milestone, or a family wedding, or a special holiday, or some new start. The human heart is naturally oriented to seeking the good that lies ahead. The new year is an occasion for a fresh start.
It is customary for people to usher in the new year with parties and fireworks. Many like to wait for the turn of midnight and cry out, “Happy New Year”. The wishes are made to all and sundry. There is a natural good will towards everyone. We wish people well for what is ahead.
Many like to see in the new year, though some like myself are happy to go to bed in 2016 and wake up in 2017.
The first reading in the Mass today unites the life of faith with the celebration of the new year. The reading offers the words of blessing given by the priest in the Old Testament. It is indeed a beautiful prayer and one which expresses the sentiments of a new year: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord uncover his face and bring you peace”.
As the new year begins we bring our life and our future before the Lord and ask for his blessing. We don’t want to progress into the new year without the Lord being with us. We place our hopes and expectations before Him and ask that He may bless our undertakings. This Mass today is an opportunity to place our hopes and plans before the Lord and ask that He bless all we undertake.
We all have our own plans and hopes and expectations, and it is good to pause and offer the new year to the Lord, asking that He may place his hand of blessing over what is ahead of us. A person of faith does not want to go it alone into the future.
New Year’s Day is also the octave day of Christmas and in the Church’s mind Christmas is still being celebrated. Indeed, we are awaiting the celebration of the arrival of the three wise men on the Feast of the Epiphany, to be celebrated next Sunday. Liturgically then we are still commemorating the wonder of the incarnation, God has become man.
On this day, the Octave Day of Christmas, Jesus was given his name, in accord with the instruction of the angel. The name in Hebrew means “God saves”. His name reveals his mission and the very purpose of his coming amongst us.
In the year 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, to be celebrated on this day, the octave day of Christmas. In his encyclical on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Marialis Cultus, he wrote, "This celebration, assigned to January 1 in conformity with the ancient liturgy of the city of Rome, is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. It is meant also to exalt the singular dignity which this mystery brings to the holy Mother … through whom we were found worthy … to receive the Author of life.”
The title, “Mother of God”, is an ancient and very important designation of the Virgin Mary. In the fifth century there was strong debate about the nature of Christ: was Jesus two separate realities – God and man? The Council of Ephesus in the year 431 resolved the issue by saying that Mary was truly the Mother of God, Theotokos, or “God bearer”. Jesus was truly God and truly man – words we say each Sunday in the Creed.
This highlights the unique role of Mary in the work of salvation and is at the basis of our devotion to her.
There is a phrase that is commonly used to express the role of Mary, something that some Christians of other churches have difficulty in understanding. The phrase is: To Jesus through Mary. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is never an end in itself, but a way to Jesus. As Mary was the way through which Jesus was incarnate among us, so she is a way in which we can come to her Son.
The Virgin Mary has a special place in the hearts and lives of Catholics. Embracing her as a spiritual mother is a way in which Catholics have lived a close relationship with her Son. She helps us come closer to Jesus.
The Catholic Catechism teaches, “Her role in relation to the Church and to all humanity goes still further. In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace."
The Church has a treasury of prayers to the Virgin Mary. These prayers reflect the ancient faith of the Church which honours our Lady. These prayers should be part of our personal prayer. They recognise our Lady as a mother – Mother of God and our mother too in the order of grace.
Thus we say the Hail Mary, the Hail Holy Queen, the Memorare, the Angelus, the Regina Caeli and, of course, the Rosary. Let us regularly say these prayers, honouring the Virgin Mary and praying for her intercession.
As this new year begins, among other hopes we may have for the year, we could decide to grow closer to Mary. We can entrust ourselves to her as our mother in the realm of grace. We can turn to her in prayer more often. We can ask her to help us be more faithful disciples of her Son.
Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 31 December 2016