9 Things You Should Know About How the Church Celebrates January 1

On January 1, the Church celebrates several things connected with Mary and Jesus. What are they? And why do we celebrate them now?
On January 1, the Church celebrates several things connected with Mary and Jesus. What are they? And why do we celebrate them now? (photo: Register Files)

January 1 is an important day in the Church's liturgy.

There is a lot that we commemorate on this day!

What we are celebrating, and why we are celebrating it now, can be a little confusing.

Here are nine things you should know . . .


1. What exactly are we celebrating on January 1?

According to the Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar [.pdf]:

1 January, the octave day of the Nativity of the Lord, is the Solemnity of Mary, the holy Mother of God, and also the commemoration of the conferral of the Most Holy Name of Jesus [Norms, 35f].

However, there has been a change since the Universal Norms were released (see below).


2. Didn't this day used to signify something else?

Yes. Pope Benedict explained:

It was Pope Paul VI who moved to 1 January the Feast of the Divine Motherhood of Mary, which was formerly celebrated on 11 October.

Indeed, even before the liturgical reform that followed the Second Vatican Council, the memorial of the circumcision of Jesus on the eighth day after his birth -- as a sign of submission to the law, his official insertion in the Chosen People -- used to be celebrated on the first day of the year and the Feast of the Name of Jesus was celebrated the following Sunday [Homily, Jan. 1, 2008].


3. Why would the commemoration of Jesus' Most Holy Name be moved to January 1?

January 1 is eight days after Christmas (counting Christmas itself), and it was on the eighth day after his birth that Jesus was officially named.

At the time, the official naming of a son was done at the time of his circumcision, when he was officially placed in the covenant and the Chosen People.

Thus St. John the Baptist is given his name at the time of his circumcision (Luke 1:59-63), and so is Jesus:

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb [Luke 2:21].

However, it was later moved back. When the 2002 edition of the Roman Missal was released by Pope John Paul II, the commemoration of the Most Holy Name of Jesus had been moved to January 3, which is when it is celebrated today as an optional memorial.

As a result, January 1 now is the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God without the addition of the commemoration of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.


4. Don't we celebrate Mary's motherhood on other days, like the Annunciation and Christmas?

Yes, but the focus on those days isn't on her role as mother per se. On the solemnity of the Annunciation, the focus is on the miracle of Jesus' virginal conception, and on Christmas the focus is on Jesus himself.


5. Why put a celebration of Mary's motherhood on January 1 in addition to the commemoration of Jesus' naming?

Pope Benedict stated:

The Apostle Paul refers to the mystery of the divine motherhood of Mary, the Theotokos, in his Letter to the Galatians.

"When the time had fully come", he writes, "God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law" (4: 4).

We find the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word and the Divine Motherhood of Mary summed up in a few words: the Virgin's great privilege is precisely to be Mother of the Son who is God.

The most logical and proper place for this Marian feast is therefore eight days after Christmas [ibid.].


6. How should we understand Mary's motherhood?

Pope Benedict explained:

Mary, in fact, is the true Mother of God precisely by virtue of her total relationship to Christ. Therefore, in glorifying the Son one honours the Mother and in honouring the Mother one glorifies the Son.

The title of “Mother of God” which the Liturgy highlights today, stresses the unique mission of the Blessed Virgin in the history of salvation: a mission that is at the root of the worship and devotion which the Christian people reserve for her.

Indeed, Mary did not receive God’s gift for herself alone, but in order to bring him into the world: in her fruitful virginity, God gave men and women the gifts of eternal salvation (cf. Collect).

And Mary continually offers her mediation to the People of God, on pilgrimage through history towards eternity, just as she once offered it to the shepherds of Bethlehem.

She, who gave earthly life to the Son of God, continues to give human beings divine life, which is Jesus himself and his Holy Spirit.

For this reason she is considered the Mother of every human being who is born to Grace and at the same time is invoked as Mother of the Church [Homily, January 1, 2011].


7. Why does the first reading of the Mass on this day give the formula that the Old Testament priests used to bless the people?

Pope Benedict explained:

Salvation is a gift of God; in the first reading, it was presented as a blessing:  "The Lord bless you and keep you!... The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!" (Nm 6: 24, 26).

This is the blessing that priests used to invoke upon the people at the end of the great liturgical feasts, particularly the feast of the New Year.

We are in the presence of a text packed with meaning, punctuated by the Name of the Lord which is repeated at the beginning of every verse. This text is not limited to the mere enunciation of principles but strives to realize what it says.

Indeed, as is widely known, in Semitic thought the blessing of the Lord produces well-being and salvation through its own power, just as cursing procures disgrace and ruin.

The effectiveness of blessing is later more specifically brought about by God, who protects us (v. 24), favours us (v. 25) and gives us peace, which is to say in other words, he offers us an abundance of happiness.

By having us listen once again to this ancient blessing at the beginning of a new solar year, the liturgy, as it were, encourages us in turn to invoke the Lord's blessing upon the New Year that is just beginning, so that it may be a year of prosperity and peace for us all [Homily, Jan. 1, 2006].


8. Is it a holyday of obligation?

The holydays of obligation vary from country to country, but in the United States, it usually is. According to the complementary norms passed by the U.S. bishops and approved by the Holy See:

In addition to Sunday, the days to be observed as holy days of obligation in the Latin Rite dioceses of the United States of America, in conformity with canon 1246, are as follows:

  • January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
  • August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
  • December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ


9. What if it falls on certain days of the week? Is it one of those holydays where you don't have to go to Mass in some years?

Yes. The complementary norms also specify:

Whenever January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, or August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, or November 1, the solemnity of All Saints, falls on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.

This year, January 1 falls on a Wednesday so it is a holyday of obligation in the Latin Rite in the United States unless your local bishop has dispensed the obligation (per Canon 87 §1).

If you need to determine whether your bishop has dispensed it, check your diocesan web site.


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