The New Year and the Maternity of Mary

January 1, 2014

It’s not immediately apparent why the day that we mark the arrival of a new calendar year is also the day we celebrate Mary under the particularly honorific title of “Mother of God.” But there’s a powerful resonance between the secular and the religious celebrations, one that shows God’s loving desire to sanctify the daily events of our human lives. At the end of the year, it’s conventional for us to reflect on our lives in the past year, giving thanks for what went well and thinking about ways to improve on what went wrong. The chronically unkept New Year’s resolution phenomenon is only one manifestation of this dynamic, among many. But unfortunately, it’s easy to skip the first step there–giving thanks–and move right into second-guessing and lamenting the previous twelve months. For many of us, it may even be tempting to write off the previous year as a near-total waste, and look with an almost desperate hope at the future as the place where our troubles will finally begin to mend. There’s a temptation in the Christian life to look at Christianity this way. In celebrating the mercy of God made manifest in Christ Jesus, we can be tempted to write off everything that came before his birth on earth, by denigrating the natural desire for religion God put in our hearts or by failing to appreciate the revelation God made to men through the covenant to Israel. All the best intentions of man in general and Israel in particular can look like so many unkept New Year’s Resolutions: just disappointing preludes to something totally different coming. But Mary, the Mother of God, prevents us from making these easy judgments. Mary stands at the midpoint between the Old Covenant and the New, belonging to the Old Covenant by her birth and the New Covenant through her confident faith, which by the grace of God led her to conceive Jesus Christ in her heart even before she conceived him in her womb. Mary represents all the hope of the Old Covenant, that the Lord who had promised to raise up a Redeemer would do so from the people of Israel and the stock of David. In fulfilling this role and becoming the Mother of God, she also represents all the hope of the New Covenant, whereby men are united to God as adopted sons and daughters, transformed by the very life of the Trinity dwelling within. In being made the Mother of God, Mary unites the past and the present and points them definitively toward a new future: eternal life in the pattern of Christ Jesus. Mary’s loving fidelity to her Jewish origins and her total devotion to her son Jesus Christ remind us that the past is not merely a ladder to the present, intended to be kicked out from under us after we climb it. The past remains with us, not as a burden to be borne but as a locus of grace that can enliven the present and direct us to a new future. The wounds and sorrows of our individual lives need neither be blocked out nor dwelt upon, either as chains to bind us or projects that we must resolve by our own ingenuity. At the beginning of this new year, Mary shows us a still more glorious way: to let the past and the present be places where we meet Christ and are transformed by him. We offer to God in the penitential rite at Mass “what I have done and what I have failed to do” as we prepare to celebrate the sacred mystery so that we who have sinned may imitate the perfection of she who did not sin: that by inviting Jesus into the imperfections of the past and their effects in the present we may receive the grace to live in a new way, to live in the faith, hope, and love that allows the future of heaven to dwell already in our hearts. This Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, may we receive anew by her intercession the gift of Jesus Christ, who forgives, unites, heals, and restores. The Old Year is past, and the New Year is begun. By his grace, may the living and remembering of both these years bring us closer to heaven.

Image: Koloman Moser, Our Lady of Mercy.

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