The Church recently celebrated the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God — a wonderful way to begin the New Year. Some might be inclined to fault the Church for placing this solemnity on New Year’s Day when the holy day of obligation is likely to be viewed with some displeasure by those who have been up late enjoying the festivities of the previous night. I disagree—this is the perfect day for such a feast.
Although the origins of the celebration of Mary Mother of God on the first day of the year can be traced back to the Council of Ephesus in 431, it was only relatively recently, in 1974, that Pope Paul VI placed it back on the calendar of the universal Church. Although the universal Church has not always celebrated the Solemnity of Mary on the first day of the year, great preachers throughout history have often taken the occasion of New Year’s Day to challenge the faithful to gain a deeper appreciation of the things that are truly important in life.
Celebrating the spiritual feast
St. John Chrysostom, to take but one example, chose to begin the New Year in 388 or 389 A.D., with an eloquent series of homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. As in our own day, when there is much drinking and drunkenness associated with the celebration of the New Year, so too in the ancient world, the first day of January would have marked the end of their biggest festival, the Saturnalia, the most popular holiday of the Roman year. The poet Catullus described it as “the best of days,” while the Stoic philosopher Seneca complained that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures.” The sober, careerist magistrate Pliny the Younger tells us he would simply retreat to his room while the rest of the household celebrated.
As in the modern world, there were church services on the 1st of the month to — how shall we put it? — attempt to dissuade Christians from partaking in too much revelry of the sort so many others seemed to have given themselves over to. Thus St. John began his homily by rallying his flock:
Yesterday, on the festival of Satan, you celebrated a spiritual feast, receiving with all favor the word we addressed to you; spending a great portion of the day in thus drinking in that rapture which is full of sobriety, and rejoicing in company with St Paul. In this way you gained a twofold benefit, since you were both separate from the disorderly throng of feasters, and rejoiced in a spiritual and decorous manner. You also partook of that cup, not overflowing with unmixed wine, but filled with spiritual instruction. While others were following the festive companies of the evil one, you, by your presence in this place, prepared yourselves as instruments of spiritual music, and surrendered your souls to the Divine Spirit that He might influence them, and breathe His own grace into your hearts. Thus you gave forth a melody of perfect harmony, pleasing not only to men but also to the heavenly powers. Let us, therefore, today, take up arms against inebriety, and expose the folly of a drunken and dissolute life.
When Chrysostom called it “the festival of Satan,” he was using that term somewhat metaphorically. Strictly speaking it was the festival of Saturn, so he was likely making a subtle play on words. And yet, on the day of “Saturn,” to what extent were people in town not acting as though they were celebrating “Satan”? His point was that while everyone else was out partying, his congregation was in church at Mass, so they celebrated, not a physical feast, but a “spiritual feast.” Instead of getting drunk, they—“full of sobriety”—drunk-in not wine, but the wisdom of the Scriptures. Instead of getting drunk on “unmixed wine” (wine unmixed with water, to cut its potency), they were drinking from another cup: the Word of God in the Scriptures and present in the Eucharist.
While others were out playing loud music in the public square (undoubtedly disturbing more contemplative souls like Seneca and Pliny), Chrysostom’s congregants were making themselves “instruments of spiritual music.” While others were out “tooting their own horns” (so to speak), Chrysostom’s congregants were perfecting themselves as an instrument, so that the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, might blow through them beautifully with his own sacred music. When men are inspired by this Spirit, they do not make a disorderly and riotous mob, in which all the minds of the individuals are given over to the crowd; rather they become a “symphony” of different voices, all working together in “perfect harmony,” pleasing to both God and man.
This context is not unimportant for appreciating the rest of the homily. Everyone else was out drinking and going to lavish parties. Or were they? Was it really “everyone”? Or was it more likely just the rich: the people who could afford to take off a week of work and pay for day after day of lavish partying? It is striking how often people (particularly young people) seem to forget that a “bohemian” lifestyle is really the product of a “bourgeois” bank account. The sort of “celebration of life” one enjoys at Easter or at the birth of a new child is one thing; the partying many people do is quite another. This second seems more interested in “forgetting one’s life” than embracing or affirming it. How much of the money spent on “partying” that goes on among the bohemian-bourgeois class is money that really ought to have been spent on the poor? So too, how many people in Chrysostom’s city, Constantinople, the greatest city of his day, going off to their lavish parties had to, in their own way, “step over” the Lazarus on their own doorstep?
In his exposition of the parable, Chrysostom took the text of the Scripture and brought it right down to the very doorstep of the faithful in his congregation. His wasn’t an abstract appeal to “be nice” or “help the poor”; his was a real call to personal conversion and a challenge to the settled ways of doing things that characterized the culture of his time. And when we read his homily, we should reflect on the ways in which our culture is not so very different from that of late antique Rome: an empire in decline with obvious problems that most people were intent on avoiding thinking about. Chrysostom is the Amos and Isaiah of his time, proclaiming God’s justice to a corrupt generation. This is what great preaching sounds like.
Mary’s mission and the meaning of life
So why is it appropriate for us to begin the year with Mary, Mother of God? Well, for one thing, because Mary represents the beginning of something entirely new, perhaps the only entirely new thing that has ever happened in a history. As the Preacher, Quoheleth, tells us:
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
True enough — until Mary. With her, the grip of sin and death is loosened. With her, the curse of the Fall begins to be lifted. With her and in her, humanity gains a new future. As Pope Francis proclaimed in his homily on the Solemnity of Mary, 2015:
The flesh (caro) of Christ — which, as Tertullian says, is the hinge (cardo) of our salvation — was knit together in the womb of Mary. This inseparability is also clear from the fact that Mary, chosen beforehand to be the Mother of the Redeemer, shared intimately in his entire mission, remaining at her Son’s side to the end on Calvary.
Thus to see Mary is to look beyond Mary, to Christ. But to see Mary is also to see what Christ promises for all of us.
Note in the passage from Pope Francis’s homily how Mary’s mission was prepared “beforehand”—even before her birth. Mary’s mission was, like Christ’s coming “in the fullness of time,” something God willed from all eternity. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, so often and so tragically misunderstood not only by our Protestant brethren but by far too many Catholics, is an expression of this truth: Mary’s “yes” to God was made possible by God’s previous gift of grace. So it is also with all of us: we do not say “yes” to God without God’s previous gift of grace. “We love,” says 1 John 4, “because God has loved us first.”
And that preparation began, not days before it was needed, but years—millennia, in fact. This revelation provides us a new perspective on history itself. History is not, we come to realize, “one damned thing after another,” as is sometimes claimed. It is not a meaningless series of accidents, of ups and downs, a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It is a story—a meaningful story full of absolutely fascinating characters.
But its meaning cannot be discerned by staring up-close at the individual letters. You have to pull back a bit and try to get a broader perspective. When you do, you realize that the individual letters — and even the individual words and sentences — reveal their true meaning within the context the broader perspective allows. It’s not that the broader perspective negates the importance of reading the individual letters and words and sentences, it’s rather that the broader perspective helps make what otherwise might seem strange and disjointed into a meaningful narrative. So too each of our lives — and indeed history itself — has a place within a larger narrative: not one that negates the importance of our lives, but one that affirms it and provides it meaning. When I see the whole, I can better understand the meaningfulness of the parts.
Granted, in this life we can never really get a clear vision of the whole, only occasional glimpses. Only God and the saints have that full view of reality. But what Mary’s story reveals to us, precisely in the biblical context within which it occurs, is that there is this larger narrative within which our little stories are meaningful.
Would it make any difference in the way you live your life, for example, if you believed that your life wasn’t, as it so often seems, a meaningless series of accidents; that instead God had a mission for you specifically, personally, and that He had prepared you—had been preparing you, even before you were born—with all the gifts needed to carry out that mission?
Starting with Mary now does what starting with Mary has always done, ever since she was proclaimed “Mother of God” at the Council of Ephesus in 451, and ever since her “yes” to God was recorded in Luke’s Gospel: it forces us to take very seriously—and very personally—the fleshiness of Christ’s entrance into actual human history. And it forces us to re-examine the manner in which we view history itself. Mary’s decisive “yes” to Christ at a particular moment in time and in history was prepared long before: it was the fruit of a long development that blossomed at just the right moment.
Mary’s “yes” to Christ was part-and-parcel of a much larger story whose decisive moment was revealed by Christ on the cross, in His sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead. When we share in that moment, like Mary at the foot of the cross, we begin to realize the telos of history beyond history. We begin a new sort of life; we begin to participate in an eternal life which involves sharing in the love which Mary shares with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
History has a goal beyond itself; and so too does each of our lives. And right at the heart of history—it’s crucial moment—is Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. And there is where we must find ourselves, with Mary His Mother. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
The Assumption and our occupation
And this brings us to the meaning and importance of that other deeply misunderstood Marian doctrine: namely, the Assumption of Mary bodily into heaven. Plenty of Catholics who know that the Catholic Church teaches Christ rose bodily from the dead are utterly shocked to discover that we are all meant to enjoy a bodily resurrection from the dead. A student once complained about a professor of mine that he was “teaching heresy” because he told his class there would be a general resurrection of all the dead. If it’s a heresy, it’s a 2000 year old heresy, and it started prior to St. Paul’s writing his epistles, where you can find the teaching on nearly every page.
Just as Mary’s motherhood makes it impossible to “spiritualize” away Christ’s incarnation, so too her bodily resurrection makes it impossible to “spiritualize” away the general resurrection of all mankind. History shows that it is often easier, and thus it is a constant temptation, to water down the Christian message by suggesting that God—the real God who created the entire universe—didn’t really become an actual man. Why not just say that He sort of “spiritually inspired” a certain man—in fact, maybe a bunch of men and women?
Yes, that would be “easier.” It’s just not what revelation tells us. There’s always that troubling little story about Mary and the birth of the child: God incarnate, the Word made flesh.
And why not just say that, after death, Jesus continued to exist in the Church “spiritually,” continuing to inspire the apostle’s charitable deeds and life in communion together? Again, that might be “easier,” but it’s just not what revelation tells us. There’s that troubling little story about the empty tomb. Okay, so maybe we swallow the notion that Christ rose from the dead; He as a God-man, after all. But what about us? Don’t we just become spirits and enter some spiritual realm? Untethered from solid Christian teaching, the modern imagination runs wild with pseudo-scientific speculations that provide precious little real hope at the edge of the dark abyss of death. The proclamation of Mary’s bodily assumption sticks a finger in that particular leaky dike. When you hold onto Mary’s assumption, it doesn’t really allow you to then turn around and spiritualize our resurrection.
It is for these reasons, then, I believe that starting with Mary is an especially good way to start each year. Starting with Mary helps us remember that the coming year isn’t just another number in a long series of numbers in which there is “nothing new under the sun”—nothing but the endless struggle to survive, to make money, get ahead, and stay ahead, trying to ignore that little voice in the back of our heads of which the poet Andrew Marvell writes:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
The news attempts to make us look back on the “stories” that “made” 2015. Most of them aren’t good. Many were tragic. Are those the things that “made” the year? We also are usually asked to remember those we “lost” during the year. Are they really “lost”? Then they bid us to look forward to the coming year in hopes that, somehow, maybe 2016 will be better. Will it? You get the sense that people don’t really believe it will. Perhaps this is because they’ve lost the perspective which gives meaning to each year: the one thing that was truly “new” in history. When Mary said her “yes,” it changed everything. This should give us hope in the coming year that if we too say “yes”—even if it’s just one person in some unknown place, unnoticed by the rich and powerful and notable—then this too can make all the difference in the world—the real world that God knows and loves, not the illusory world that the news makes us mistake for the real one.
A culture that “measures its life out in coffee spoons,” checking off the passage of time by mechanical clicks and the passage of days by the numbers left in the “fiscal” year” or the “calendar year” or “the number of shopping days left until,” that is concerned first and foremost with measuring and controlling time than with living each moment fully, would do well to remember that there is another way—one that served our forebears well for centuries. There were Christians who lived and worked each day as a prayer of thanksgiving to God, celebrating the passage of time in the context provided by the Liturgical Year, recalling the events of salvation history that established the everlasting meaningfulness of history and our part in it.
“Men’s curiosity searches past and future / And clings to that dimension,” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot.
But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint.
It should be our occupation too.
Life is a great gift. But like any gift, it gets ruined if you try to hold onto it too tightly. And like the best gifts, its real value lies in enjoying the love that gave the gift. And when you can enjoy the gift with the One who gave it, well, life just doesn’t get any better than that. And that’s undoubtedly a good thing to remember as we begin each new calendar year.
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