I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the month of January. On the one hand, I’m excited by the prospect of a new year, filled with possibility after the joy of Christmas. On the other, I dread the long stretch of winter, unbroken by any major holidays, silently slipping into the somber weeks of Lent. Spring seems far off, and I feel caught in a season of “in-between.”
I usually manage to compound my discomfort by drawing up what is, at least for me, a thoroughly unrealistic list of New Year’s resolutions. I promise myself I’ll run a few miles before dawn, renounce chocolate completely, greet everyone with a smile and never fall behind on laundry or emails. Within less than a week, I’m humbled by my inability to follow through on even these simple goals.
Before repeating this cycle of failure in 2020, I decided to first find out who was to blame for the custom of making New Year’s resolutions. Apparently we can thank the ancients: both the Babylonians and the Romans were known to make annual commitments to behave.
Christians also embraced the practice; starting in the early 18th century, Protestant denominations began holding Dec. 31 vigils at which participants prayerfully reflected on both the previous and coming years. These gatherings evolved into the Watch Nights held in many African American churches, which commemorate the Jan. 1, 1863 enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in Confederate states during the Civil War.
As Catholics, we have a New Year’s tradition that beautifully embodies the desire to do (and to be) better in the coming months. On Jan. 1, we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God — or, in Greek, “Theotokos,” God-bearer, a title that was officially declared at the Council of Ephesus in 431, although it had already been part of popular Christian devotion since the third century. Two later councils — Chalcedon and Vatican II — reaffirmed Mary’s divine motherhood, and her pivotal role in salvation history.
We know Mary, above all, as a mother. Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “the description ‘Mother of God’ … is therefore the fundamental name with which the community of believers has always honored the Blessed Virgin.”
And this mother, whose very being glorifies the Lord, is our best hope for transforming the everyday into the eternal. If we think that returning to our work routines after the Christmas holidays is hard, imagine having to flee the wrath of Herod with a newborn and build a new life in unfamiliar Egypt. If winter dulls our spirits, think of the silent years Mary spent in Nazareth, loving and nurturing the young Jesus amid ordinary tasks such as cooking, cleaning, spinning and sewing.
Like a true mother, Mary knows us through and through. She’s not surprised when we stumble, and she doesn’t hesitate to open her merciful arms and embrace us. Her dearest wish is that we should live as fully as she does in the love of her Son.
At the start of this new year, then, I’ve decided to pare down my list of resolutions into one: to entrust myself to Mary. With her guidance, and through her example and intercession, I may finally keep up on housework and exercise — but more importantly, I’ll draw closer to the Lord, which is the best resolution anyone could hope to make, and to keep.
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