On Jan. 1, the Church celebrates one of the most important feast days of the Catholic liturgical year: the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
The feast, which shares the date with New Year’s Day, has its roots in the Council of Ephesus, in 431 A.D.
At the Council, Mary was formally given the title, Theotokos (Mother of God). The Council Fathers declared that Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot be separated and exist in one person. Therefore, Mary, as Mother of Jesus, is also Mother of God.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI instituted the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. In his encyclical on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Marialis Cultus, he wrote, "This celebration, assigned to Jan. 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.’"
It is a holy day of obligation, but it still tends to be overshadowed by New Year’s festivities.
Perhaps that’s because some people don’t fully understand the solemnity’s importance.
"The Church puts the feast of this solemnity on the first day of the new year to emphasize the importance of Mary’s role in the life of Christ and of the Church," said Schoenstatt Father Gerold Langsch. "We commemorate the various saints on the different days of the year, but Mary is the most prominent of them all."
"She has a special role and mission given to her by God. As Mother of our Redeemer and of the redeemed, she reigns as the Queen at the side of Christ the King. She is a powerful intercessor for all of our needs here on earth. In celebrating her special feast day, we acknowledge this great gift for the Church and world; we call on her to be actively involved in our daily life; we imitate her virtuous life as a great inspiration; and we cooperate with all the graces we get through her," he added.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the new year — but this religious holy day should not be second place to secular festivities.
Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle — a popular EWTN TV host and author of several books on Catholic motherhood and the faith — says that, growing up, Jan. 1 was a day to visit relatives or have them come visit. They kept Mary prominent as they shared each other’s company.
With her own family as a wife and mother, Cooper O’Boyle has always made an effort to bring Mary even more to the foreground on her solemnity. "Mass is most important, of course," she said. "In addition, I like to make a nice dinner and dessert to celebrate Mary’s day. I remind the family that, even though it’s New Year’s Day, it is, more importantly, Mary’s feast day."
For families who’d like to bring Mary more into the foreground this Jan. 1, Cooper O’Boyle recommends a few simple ways.
"Plan to go to Mass on either the vigil or Jan. 1. Talk to the family about Mother Mary on her feast day. Pray a Hail Mary or decade of the Rosary together at the dinner table. Make Mary a central part of your day."
There’s an underlying theme that we might also want to note in our observance of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. That’s peace.
"The solemnity shows the relationship of Jesus to Mary," said Father Bertrand Buby of the University of Dayton. "It’s a perfect example of how we should venerate Mary under all of her titles and is a good foundation for our understanding of Mary’s place in Christology."
"Pope Paul VI made the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God in order to tie Mary, Mother of God into an earlier feast that he had set up for peace," said Father Buby. "So it’s a good idea for us as Catholics to celebrate the solemnity with peace in the background."
The World Day of Peace also takes place on Jan. 1 in the Catholic liturgical calendar as part of the Christmas season. It was instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1967 upon the inspiration of Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris.
In Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI wrote, "It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewed adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace. For this reason … we have instituted the World Day of Peace, an observance that is gaining increasing support and is already bringing forth fruits of peace in the hearts of many."
Both of these feasts come on the heels of another major one: the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, celebrated the Sunday after Christmas (this year, Dec. 29). It’s fitting, then, that we draw a progression from one to the other. The Prince of Peace was born into the Holy Family, thus making Mary the Mother of God.
As we celebrate Mary this Jan. 1, we can pray with Pope Francis, who ended his recent exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), with the following prayer:
Mary, Virgin and Mother, you who, moved by the Holy Spirit, welcomed the Word of Life in the depths of your humble faith:
As you gave yourself completely to the Eternal One, help us to say our own "Yes" to the urgent call, as pressing as ever, to proclaim the good news of Jesus.
Filled with Christ’s presence, you brought joy to John the Baptist, making him exult in the womb of his mother.
Brimming over with joy, you sang of the great things done by God. Standing at the foot of the cross with unyielding faith, you received the joyful comfort of the Resurrection and joined the disciples in awaiting the Spirit, so that the evangelizing Church might be born.
Obtain for us now a new ardor born of the Resurrection, that we may bring to all the Gospel of life, which triumphs over death.
Give us a holy courage to seek new paths, that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.
Virgin of listening and contemplation, Mother of love, Bride of the eternal wedding feast, pray for the Church, whose pure icon you are, that she may never be closed in on herself or lose her passion for establishing God’s Kingdom.
Star of the New Evangelization, help us to bear radiant witness to communion, service, ardent and generous faith, justice and love of the poor, that the joy of the Gospel may reach to the ends of the earth, illuminating even the fringes of our world.
Mother of the living Gospel, wellspring of happiness for God’s little ones, pray for us.
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.