This feast day of January 1st is a very complex tapestry, both culturally and liturgically. Perhaps we can use the second reading by St. Paul to the Galatians as a way to weave through some of the many details. We can look at it in three parts.
I. The chronology of our celebration – The text from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians says, When the fullness of time had come …
Most people in the wider culture and in the Church are going about today saying, “Happy New Year!” And rightfully so, for it is the beginning of the new year. But most people think of New Year’s Day in almost wholly secular terms. Sadly, it is best known for excessive drinking and rather loud parties.
Yet it is a mistake to see New Year’s Day simply as a secular holiday. St. Paul reminds us, in speaking of “the fullness of time,” that all time and all ages belong to God.
It is not simply 2015; it is 2015 Anno Domini (A.D.). Even the most secular and unbelieving of people in the Western world locate their place in time in relation to Jesus Christ. It is 2014 years since the birth of Christ. Every time we write the date on a check or at the top of the letter, every time we see the date at the top of the newspaper or on our computer screen, that number, 2015, points back to Christ. He is the Lord of history. Jesus sets the date; He is the clock we go by. All time belongs to Him.
Jesus says in the book of Revelation, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, The beginning and the end. He who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Revelation 22:13).
If it is true that 2015 references the birth of Christ, the question arises as to why Christmas Day is not also New Year’s Day. But this actually makes a lot of sense if we understand liturgical and spiritual sensibilities.
In the Church, and stretching back into Jewish times, it was customary to celebrate the high feasts of faith over the period of a week. In Christian tradition this came to be known as the “octave.” Though we think of a week as seven days, it does not take long to consider that we celebrated Christmas last week on Thursday. Now this week we celebrate New Year’s Day on Thursday, and Thursday to Thursday inclusive is eight days.
Thursday, January 1, 2015 is the eighth day of Christmas. In the Christian tradition the octave is considered really as one long day that lasts eight days. Therefore, Thursday, January 1, 2015 completes Christmas day; Christmas day is fulfilled. Or as St. Paul says, the “fullness of time” in terms of Christmas day has come. And thus the calendars flip from one year to the next. Now, at the end of Christmas day, our calendars go from 2014 to 2015 A.D.
The rest of the secular world has largely moved on already, barely thinking of Christmas anymore. As I walk in my neighborhood, I see the strange spectacle of Christmas trees already set out at the curb waiting to be picked up by the recycling trucks. Yes, for many in our hurried world, Christmas is over. But we in the Church continue to celebrate the great Christmas feast and cycle. Having completed the octave, we move on to Epiphany week.
Thus, this New Year, we contemplate the “fullness of time.” The passage of another year reminds us of the magnificent truth that to God all time, past, present, and future, is equally present. He holds all things together in Himself. He is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. And whenever He acts, He always acts in our time, out of the fullness of time. This is a very deep mystery and we should ponder in silence the mystery that for God, all things ARE. He is not waiting for things to happen. For Him, everything is accomplished. I will write more on this in tomorrow’s blog.
II. The content of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, God sent forth his son born of a woman. And with this statement we are again reminded that we are still in the Christmas cycle.
We’ve already discussed the concept of the eighth day, of the octave. And while it is New Year’s Day, there is also a complex tapestry of religious meanings to this day as well.
As we’ve already seen, it is still Christmas day, the eighth day of the one long day that we call Christmas Day.
Historically, this is also the day of Christ’s circumcision. And for a long period in Church history that was the name given to this feast day, “The Circumcision of the Lord.” As I have written previously, I personally regret the loss of this feast, at least in terms of its title.
This is the day when Joseph and Mary brought Christ to be circumcised. In this, Jesus as man and also as God reverences the covenant He has made with His people. It is a beautiful truth that God seeks relationship with His people. And in this covenantal act of the circumcision is the moving truth that, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb 2:11).
There is here the first shedding of blood by Jesus. It is also a sign of His love for us.
Another truth about the content of this feast is the Holy Name of Jesus. For not only was a Jewish boy circumcised on the eighth day, but he was also given his name, and all hear that name for the first time.
The name, Jesus, means “God saves.” And indeed this most Holy Name of Jesus, when used in reverence, has saving power. We are baptized in His Holy Name along with that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. And all of our prayers conclude with His Holy Name. Scripture says of His great and holy name,
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2: 9-11).
And yet another identity and content of this feast day is shown in its current, formal title, “The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God.” This title replaced the title of the Feast of the Circumcision back in 1970. However, it is the most ancient title for this feast day. Again, you can read more on this issue in a previous blog post.
We note in the reading that Paul says that God sent forth his Son, born of a woman. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father; He is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God. Jesus is God, and since Mary gives birth to Jesus, Mary is the Mother of God, because Jesus is not two different persons.
Mary did not just give birth to part of Jesus, she gives birth to Jesus. And thus the title “Mother of God” speaks to us as much about Jesus as it does about Mary. It is a title that she has because of the Church’s insistence that Jesus cannot be divided up into two different people. We cannot say that Mary gives birth to one Jesus but not “the other one.” There is only one Jesus, though He has two natures, human and divine.
And thus, on this feast of Christmas, on this eighth day of Christmas, we are reminded and solemnly taught that Jesus is human and also divine. In taking a human nature to Himself from his mother Mary, He remains one person. God has sent forth his son born of woman.
III. The consolation of our celebration – St. Paul goes on to say, Born under the law to ransom those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son in our hearts crying out Abba, Father! So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and, if a son, also an heir through God.
Note three things about this text:
A. Our Adoption – We have already noted that on the eighth day Jesus is circumcised and enters into the Covenant, into the Law. In the Incarnation He joins the human family; in the Covenant He joins our family of faith. He will fulfill the old Covenant and inaugurate the new one. And by this New Covenant, by baptism into Him, we become members of His Body and thereby become adopted as sons.
We become sons in the Son. When God the Father looks to His Son, loving His Son, he is also looking at us and loving us, for we are in Christ Jesus, members of His Body through baptism. God is now our Father, not in some allegorical sense, but in a very real sense. We are in Jesus and therefore God really is our Father.
B. Our Acclamation – St. Paul says that the proof of our sonship is the movement of the Holy Spirit in us that cries out Abba! In Aramaic and Hebrew, Abba is the family term for father. It is not baby talk, like “Dada.” But just as most adults called their father “Dad” or some other endearment rather than “father,” so it is that Abba is the family term for father. It would be a daring thing for us to call God “Dad” unless we were permitted to do so, and instructed to do so by Christ.
St. Paul speaks of this word as proof that we are sons. In so doing, he emphasizes that it is not merely the saying of the word that he refers to. Even a parrot can be taught to say the word. Rather, St. Paul is referring to what the word represents: an inner movement of the Holy Spirit wherein we experience a deep affection for God the Father. By our adoption, our baptism into Christ, by our reception of the Holy Spirit, we love the Father! We develop a deep affection for Him and dread offending Him. By this gift of the Spirit, God is my Father whom I deeply love!
C. Our advancement – Notice that St. Paul then speaks of how we have moved from being a slave to being a son, an heir. In Jesus, we are not just any son, we are the only Son of the Father. And as Jesus has a kingdom from His Father, we too inherit it with Him! As sons in the Son, we are heirs with Jesus to the Kingdom! Jesus speaks of His disciples as one day reigning with Him: And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me (Lk 22:29). In Jesus, all Heaven will be ours and we will reign with Christ forever. This is not our doing, not our glory; it is Christ’s doing and His glory in which we share.
And thus we have a very rich tapestry on this New Year’s Day, this feast of the Octave of Christmas, this Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord, this Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, this Feast of Mary the Mother of God. And also we are given this feast wherein the glory of Christ is held before us and we who are members of His body are told of the gifts that we receive by His Holy Incarnation and His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
It’s not a bad way to start the new year: reminded of God’s incredible love for us, of His rich blessings and promises.