When Pope St. Paul VI reformed the Church’s calendar, one of the things he did was restore the solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, back to Jan. 1. This was the more ancient day for this feast, connecting it closely as the culminating celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The veneration of Mary is vital, Pope Paul VI says, because it is an extension of our veneration of Jesus (Marialis Cultus, No. 5). We would not have Christmas Day were it not for the virginal motherhood of Mary, and therefore if we want to properly celebrate the feast of the birth of Jesus, we must also give thanks and due honor to his mother, Mary.
Pope St. Paul VI chose to restore this solemnity to Jan. 1 not only for its close ties with the Nativity, but also because it was an ancient Roman tradition to celebrate the motherhood of Mary on Jan. 1. In addition to this, Pope Paul also sees it as fitting as culminating the Christmas octave on the first day of the new year, thereby entrusting the new year to the maternal care of Mary.
Yet, it is this last point about New Year’s, as well as the seeming burden of going to Church four times in eight days, that often this great solemnity gets ignored. Pastors, for example, often offer less Masses for this day, not because they don’t want people to come, but because the numbers are often significantly lower that it doesn’t warrant the efforts to put all the ministries together to make Mass possible.
Of all the holy days of obligation, it seems to be the least observed and the least known to be a holy day of obligation. Yet, this great solemnity ought to be embraced by us by attending the celebration of the Mass on this day and marking it in a special way. By doing so, we will come to a deeper love for Mary, her Son and the Church.
The eighth day
The solemn celebration of Mary’s motherhood occurs on the eighth day of the Octave of Christmas. Octaves have a special place in the life of the Church because they symbolize the extension of the feast: It is too big an event to simply reduce to one day. The number eight symbolizes the new creation, begun on the first day of the week, Sunday, after the seventh day of the old creation, Saturday. By marking liturgically the celebration of a particular feast with eight days, we are saying in a special way that it is a saving time in the Church, that we are mysteriously participating in Jesus’ saving activity. The birth of Jesus is itself the beginning of our salvation, and over these eight days especially, the mystery of that celebration is extended.
The eighth day is the new creation. The new Adam comes to us on the first day of this saving time, and the new Eve is celebrated at the end. Without the Savior, there would be no mother, but without the mother, there would be no Savior. They depend upon each other. This is why it’s fitting that Mary is celebrated for her cooperation with the Incarnation, just as the Incarnation is what makes the sinless virgin possible in the first place. By celebrating Mary’s motherhood, then, we are completing the more festive celebration of the birth of Jesus. Just as when a mother gives birth to a newborn, friends and family look tenderly at the newborn, but show care and service to the new mother, so it is to a greater degree with Jesus and his mother, Mary.
Mother of the Son of God
The next reason this feast becomes so important is that motherhood is deeply tied to our humanity. It is in the womb of a mother that a child is conceived, grows and is given life. So much of what the child is and has comes from his or her mother. The lived biological closeness between mother and child creates a special bond that lasts for their whole lives.
These facts of motherhood speak to a profound truth of the Incarnation. Jesus cannot be without his mother, and his sacred humanity is fully and completely given to him by his mother. Nothing is held back by Mary in giving the Son of God the humanity he desired to take upon himself. The humanity of Jesus is always tied to Mary and imparts on us a need to look to her to know and understand her Son. If we want to honor God taking on our flesh in Jesus, then we must honor she from whom Jesus received his human nature. By not honoring Mary, we would in many ways be ignoring and dishonoring the radical truth of the Incarnation.
Mary and the Church
All of the above is vital for the Church today. For Mary, as Vatican II loves to encourage us to understand, is the perfection of the Church. In Mary, we see everything of what the Church is meant to be. Her “yes” is the yes of the whole Church, given perfectly in gratitude to her Son, receiving completely his redemptive act on our behalf.
Since the Church is Jesus’ mystical body, of which we are all members, then it follows that Mary is the Church’s mother. Hence, her motherhood never ceases. She is always giving birth to Christ anew in the Church through the waters of baptism, conversion of souls, sanctification through grace. Without Mary, the Church cannot be, and thus we celebrate her motherhood because she is not only the mother of God, but also our mother through Jesus.
How to celebrate this day?
The above are just some of the reasons the Church asks us to go to Mass on Jan. 1. It really ought to be a priority for us because it is the natural extension of Dec. 25. By going to Mass, we encounter God in the flesh through the Eucharistic sacrifice, and there is nothing more fitting than the feasts of Christmas and the Mother of God to emphasize the reality of God taking on our flesh.
Other traditions can be established for this time of year as well, though. One could be to see if your parish can host adoration until midnight to bring in the new year. By consecrating the new year to Mary on her feast day by adoring her Son in the Blessed Sacrament, we mysteriously experience her motherhood for the whole Church. Parishes, too, could celebrate solemn vespers on Jan. 1 to conclude the Christmas octave.
It goes without saying that setting time aside for the Rosary — by yourself or as a family — is an amazing way to celebrate this day. Perhaps, too, it could be a day where mothers can be honored in some way by their spouse and children, emphasizing the deep connection between all mothers and Mary.
These are only a few small suggestions, but the key is to make time for the Lord and his mother on this day, and to add to it your own personal celebrations that really mark the festive character of this day. Then it becomes something the whole family can look forward to each year. By establishing festive traditions to this day, by thinking of different ways to honor Mary, and by celebrating the Incarnation by attending Mass — all of this aids us in encountering Mary more, and it all aids us in helping us experience all the more deeply the reality of the Incarnation, that God is with us in the flesh, and that he continues to take on flesh in us today in the Church through Mary his mother.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison.