The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Dear brothers and sisters,
The secular celebrations accompanying New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have always baffled me, in part because the designation of January 1st as New Year’s Day is something of an arbitrary decision. More than a millennium ago, Aelfric of Eynsham observed this arbitrariness, saying:
We have often heard that people call this day 'year’s day', as the first day in the course of the year, but we do not find any explanation in Christian books as to why this day should be appointed the beginning of the year. The ancient Romans, in heathen days, began the calendar of the year on this day; the Hebrew people began at the spring equinox, the Greeks at the summer solstice, and the Egyptians began the calendar of their year at harvest. Now our calendar begins on this day, according to the Roman practice, not for any holy reason, but because of ancient custom. Some of our service books begin at the Advent of the Lord. However, that is not the beginning of our year; there is no reason for it being this day, although our calendars continue to put it in this place.
Though we have chosen to follow the ancient Roman practice of observing the date of the New Year, it should not be forgotten that this falls in midst of the season of Christmas. As such, what seems arbitrary, might not be. Even so, there is something besides this seeming arbitrariness that baffles me about New Year’s Eve and Day.
Each year, many people make New Year’s resolutions. They do so with the full knowledge that they did not keep the resolutions they made the previous year. They also do so with the honest expectation that they will also not keep these new resolutions for more than a few weeks, at best. People know this, and yet they still make such resolutions every year; they expect to fail in their resolve, but hope they will persevere in their resolve. Is this not the very reason the Son of God was born of the Virgin Mary? Did he not become incarnate in her womb to save us from our sins? Did not he, the Bread of Life, allow himself to be placed in manger as a foreshadowing of the nourishment he would give to us to strengthen us in our resolve?
The ancient Anglo-Saxons observed the beginning of the New Year on December 25th because of the newness that the Child of Bethlehem brought to earth. In other places, the beginning of the New Year was observed on March 25th, also because of the newness that the Child of Bethlehem brought to earth when the Archangel Gabriel announced God’s plan for our salvation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In both cases, the beginning of the New Year was seen as somehow connected to the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of God made flesh, the mystery of our salvation. Because our secular celebrations of the New Year have been so disconnected from the Church’s ongoing celebration of Christmas, she has placed this Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, at the beginning of the New Year as a way of calling us back to the joy of Christmas.
Because we too often celebrate Christmas well before Christmas has actually come, we miss an important aspect of what our forebears knew so very well.
The ancient custom was to fast in Advent in preparation for the feast, and then to celebrate for at least twelve days after Christmas (and to some degree, all through January). Now we do it the other way around; for many people the feast is followed by a penitential fast, in the form of 'Dry January' or New Year's resolutions about eating less and going to the gym. As a manifestation of the desire for a fresh start, this 'New Year, new you' impulse is natural enough, but it does strike me as strange that it's so often framed in negative terms. There's an odd sense, encouraged mostly perhaps by journalists and advertisers, that the indulgence of Christmas is a 'sin' which has to be atoned for - as if eating and drinking with friends and family, to celebrate the turn of the year from darkness to light, is a moral lapse for which one must subsequently make amends by privation and self-punishment. We are much less kind to ourselves in these weeks after Christmas than the strictest confessor would have been in the Middle Ages. Feasting at Christmas is not something to atone for, but a proper observance due to the season; and that feasting is also the sustenance we need to carry us into the New Year with energy and strength.
Christians of centuries gone by looked to the new year with hope because they knew the joy that Christ Jesus brought with him, the joy he promises to those who unite themselves to himself (cf. John 15:11).
A quick glance at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram last night seemed to suggest a great many people think the year 2018 had personally gone after them. It was, they said, a bad year and they could not wait to see what 2019 will bring. The presumption, of course, is that this new year will better than the old year, though no explanation was given as to why this ought to be. If we find ourselves thinking along these same illogical lines, it is good to remember what Saint Augustine said: “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”
The year itself has been bad to no one; it has no personality and so cannot act against us or in our favor. Rather, it is we who shape the course of the year, by what we do and what we fail to do. This we too often forget. A lot of Christians in these United States of America grumble and moan about the course society seems to be taking. Too be sure, the trajectory does not look promising, but some 70% of Americans claim to be Christian. If this 70% of the population would live like Christians everyday the course of society would dramatically alter overnight, and for the better.
If we want 2019 to be any different than 2018, we will need to keep alive within our hearts the memory of what those shepherds saw: “the infant lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16). This is why, at the beginning of this New Year, the Church urges us to turn our eyes to the Virgin Mother of God, to her who is also our Mother, and who kept all the events of the Birth of her Son in her heart (cf. John 19:27; Luke 2:19). As we lift our eyes towards her lovely face, we, as devoted children, say to her: “Turn, then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.” With the eyes of the Holy Child and of his Mother upon us, how can this new year be bad? Indeed, with their eyes upon us and ours upon theirs, how can any year bad?
As so many people look on the past year with displeasure, they would do well to remember that, as Saint Augustine reminds us,
…it is evil men who make this evil world. Yet as we cannot be without evil men, let us, as I have said, while we live pour out our groans before the Lord our God, and endure the evils, that we may attain to the things that are good. Let us not find fault with the Master of the household; for He is loving to us. He bears us, and not we him. He knows how to govern what He made; do what He has bidden, and hope for what He has promised.
If we do, this new year will be filled with the joy and peace of Christmas, that of the Mother of God and of her Holy Child. Amen.
 Aelfric of Eynsham, Sermon for the Circumcision of the Lord. In Eleanor Parker, “A New Year’s Day Carol,” A Clerk of Oxford, 1 January 2011. Accessed 31 December 2018. Available at https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2011/01/new-years-day-carol.html.
 Eleanor Parker, “‘Wyle New Year watz so yet that hit watz newe cummen…,’” A Clerk of Oxford, 31 December 2017. Accessed 31 December 2018. Available at https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2017/12/wyle-new-year-watz-so-yep-that-hit-watz.html.
 Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the New Testament, 30.8.
 Cf. Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study. Accessed 31 December 2018. Available at http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
 Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the New Testament, 30.8.