Today is both New Year’s Day and the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Associated with the former observance is the secular tradition of making resolutions – targets for self-improvement of various kinds, to be achieved throughout the course of the following year. This (as with most things secular) has its roots in earlier traditions – the Romans made promises to Janus (after whom January is named) at the beginning of each year, and Medieval knights renewed their vows of chivalry at the same time. The element that could perhaps be said to be most unique to our modern, secular practice is the almost total focus on self-oriented goals: improvement of the health, happiness or general conduct of the individual is paramount.
It is a truism that the vast majority of such resolutions made are only acted upon for a short period of time, and this also perhaps reflects the superficial, selfish nature of the practice itself. When resolutions to change are made solely for the purposes of my desires, well, when those desires alter, the resolutions tend to go out of the window. Unless our decisions to change are rooted in a wider context or greater purpose, they will not last (and this goes for religious commitments too, which must be sincere or will likewise perish or fade away, as Our Lord pointed out in the Parable of the Sower – c.f.; Mark 4:1-20). Framing our interests in terms of our immediate desires and of purely individual wants inevitably leads either to an intensification of the ego or of a return to entrapment in the web of fleeting and competing claims of the world.
Let us compare all this to the life of Our Blessed Mother, Mary. We know little of that life from Scripture, but what has been preserved there (and illuminated by Sacred Tradition) is charged with significance and tells us much about her character. The first time we meet Our Lady is in the infancy narratives, where we read that in response to the great and fearful news delivered by the Angel Gabriel, she replied ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38), and this despite being ‘greatly troubled’ (v.29) at what he had to say. Later, as Our Lord began His ministry and then performed His first miracle, she told the servants at Cana (and all who have read these words since) to ‘do whatever he tells you’ (John 2:6).
At another time during His ministry, when a woman in the crowd told Our Lord that the womb that bore Him was blessed, he replied ‘blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (Luke 11:28). This episode, like that of the Marriage at Cana, where Our Lord replied to Our Lady’s request to show His power with the enigmatic ‘O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come’ (John 2:4)*, is often thought to be an example of Mary’s being belittled or ignored by her Son. However, the Church has long held these to refer, as do the other examples given above, to the humble way in which Our Blessed Mother submitted to the Word of God. She is blessed amongst all created beings because she was honoured to bear the Word within her; but she was so honoured because of her faith, humility and purity of heart.
A singular dignity belongs to the Blessed Virgin because she is, as the First Council of Ephesus declared in 431, the Theotokos, the Mother of God, and therefore plays a central role in our salvation. It is because of this honour that so many moving lyrics have been written about Our Lady, like the anonymous 15th Century German hymn, A Noble Flower of Juda (or ‘Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen’), which was adapted in the early 17th century by the German composer Michael Praetorius and is sung (Evening Prayer I in the Divine Office) on Christmas Eve, as well as throughout the Christmas season:
A noble flower of Juda from tender roots has sprung,
A rose from stem of Jesse, as prophets long had sung,
A blossom fair and bright,
That in the midst of winter will change to dawn our night.
The rose of grace and beauty of which Isaiah sings
Is Mary, virgin mother, and Christ the flower she brings.
By God’s divine decree
She bore our loving Saviour, who died to set us free.
To Mary, dearest Mother, with fervent hearts we pray:
Grant that your tender infant will cast our sins away,
And guide us with his love
That we shall ever serve him, and live with him above.
Beautiful words that capture the essence of why Mary is so exalted, which essence has at its heart the profound mystery that before all ages she was chosen by God to be the one who would freely agree to bear Him into the world. It is also part of the mystery of grace that she was thus chosen because of her faithfulness and purity of heart, and that these qualities were possible in her precisely because of her being set apart from other creatures according to God’s eternal decrees. Into such mysteries creatures cannot hope to gain much more clarity – it is the nature of things that we are limited, and can only see so far, despite what many of us seem to think. But the end result of this is that Mary was and is one whose will is always in accordance to and follows the divine will.
Thus when we compare the Blessed Virgin and her resolution to the secular practice of making New Year’s resolutions, we can see that they are not only different in their results but wholly different in kind, and that these two differences are interlinked. We make resolutions that are self-oriented and superficial, and the results are transient and do not persevere; Mary made a steadfast resolution rooted in the will of Another, He who creates and sustains all that exists, and her decision resulted in the birth of Christ, with all that followed as she accompanied Him throughout His life, right to the end. The comparison is a telling one, and a sure reminder of how little the secular worldview really has to offer in the long term, as well as how important it is to look to Mary – she is an example for us to follow, a loving Mother for us to call upon, and will always lead us back to her Son. If we all keep close to her, it will be a Happy New Year indeed!
*Incidentally, the variety of ways in which this phrase (which is literally translated as ‘What to me and to thee?’) is used should give us confidence that we need not be coerced into accepting one meaning for Our Lord’s utterance here. Judges 11:12; 2 Samuel 16:10, 19:22; 2 Kings 3:13; Matthew 8:29/Mark 1:24 all use the same phrase, and yet admit of divergent interpretations according to context. Nevertheless, the main point here is that our interpretation must be guided by Tradition, which has consistently understood these words as an assertion of Our Lord’s independence from His Mother (and over all creatures) as Son of God, and of the perfect faith of Our Lady, whose will is in perfect harmony with that of God.