By Sarah Rozman | January 1, 2009
Today we celebrate Mary, Mother of God. Stop. Think. Not only did God become man, but He chose one of us, a human, to be His mother. “Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God Himself” (Catechism, no. 509). (She was also immaculately conceived. Also a virgin before, during, and after the birth of her divine Son.)
Following so closely after Christmas, another day of wonderment, this feast certainly reminds us to not become so accustomed to the facts that our faith becomes ho-hum. How about some holy amazement?
For a New Year’s refresher course on Mary as Mother of God, check out CUF’s Faith Fact on the topic.
UPDATE: (from CUF’s research archives, in response to the first comment, below)
First, the celebration of the circumcision was not simply replaced by the celebration of Mary as Mother of God. There has always been a Marian component to the celebrations of this time of year. Further, the circumcision was not celebrated as its own feast in the early Church. Lastly, the circumcision is still included in the liturgy of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. One might accurately say that the Church has chosen a Marian emphasis for the January 1 liturgy.
The following is taken from the old Catholic Encyclopedia, published in decades before the change was made. Note that the article is on the Feast of the Circumcision, but that Mary is included:
Feast of the Circumcision
Christmas was celebrated on 25 December, even in the early centuries, at least by the Western Church, whence the date was soon adopted in the East also. Saint Chrysostom credits the West with the tradition, and St. Augustine speaks of it as well and long established. Consequently the Circumcision fell on the first of January. In the ages of paganism, however, the solemnization of the feast was almost impossible, on account of the orgies connected with the Saturnalian festivities, which were celebrated at the same time. Even in our own day the secular features of the opening of the New Year interfere with the religious observance of the Circumcision, and tend to make a mere holiday of that which should have the sacred character of a Holy Day. St. Augustine points out the difference between the pagan and the Christian manner of celebrating the day: pagan feasting and excesses were to be expiated by Christian fasting and prayer (P. L., XXXVIII, 1024 sqq.; Serm. cxcvii, cxcviii). The Feast of the Circumcision was kept at an early date in the Gallican Rite, as is clearly indicated in a Council of Tours (567), in which the Mass of the Circumcision is prescribed (Con. Tur., II., can. xvii in Labbe, V, 857). The feast celebrated at Rome in the seventh century was not the Circumcision as such, but the octave of Christmas. The Gelasian Sacramentary gives the title “In Octabas Domini”, and prohibits the faithful from idolatry and the profanities of the season (P. L., LXXIV, 1061). The earliest Byzantine calendars (eighth and ninth centuries) give for the first of January both the Circumcision and the anniversary of St. Basil. The Feast of the Circumcision was observed in Spain before the death of St. Isidore (636), for the “Regula Monachorum”, X, reads: “For it hath pleased the Fathers to appoint a holy season from the day of the Lord’s birth to the day of His Circumcision” (P.L., LXXXIII, 880). It seems, therefore, that the octave was more prominent in the early centuries, and the Circumcision later.
It is to be noted also that the Blessed Virgin Mary was not forgotten in the festivities of the holy season, and the Mass in her honour was sometimes said on this day. Today, also, while in both Missal and Breviary the feast bears the title “In Circumcisione Domini et Octav Nativitatis”, the prayers have special reference to the Blessed Virgin, and in the Office, the responses and antiphons set forth her privileges and extol her wonderful prerogatives. The psalms for Vespers are those appointed for her feasts, and the antiphons and hymn of Lauds keep her constantly in view. As paganism passed away the religious festivities of the Circumcision became more conspicuous and solemn; yet, even in the tenth century, Atto, Bishop of Vercelli, rebuked those who profaned the holy season by pagan dances, songs, and the lighting of lamps (P.L. CXXXIV, 43).
(available online at www.newadvent.org/cathen/03779a.htm)
The liturgical calendar undergoes changes as part of an effort by pastors to meet the needs of the faithful. These changes, however, are often part of a gradual shift over centuries, reflecting practices and devotions of the faithful and greater understanding of existing truths. Thus, as the article says, the Feast of the Circumcision was not on the Roman calendar until after the seventh century. Further, Mary was always associated with the Christmas Octave. The following is a brief explanation on the history of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
Before 1969 this feast celebrated on January 1st, was the circumcision of Jesus. The origins of the feast of Mary’s maternity are obscure. Major feasts of Mary were celebrated from the 5th Century on: Jerusalem on 15 August (~428), church at Gethsemani (~458), Armenian Church. More specifically, from around 500, a “Day of the Theotokos” was celebrated in the Eastern Church either before or after Christmas. This celebration evolved subsequently to a Marian feast on December 26 (Byzantine) and January 16 (Coptic).
The Gregorian and Roman calendars marked the octave day of Christmas with a strong Marian emphasis (~600). There were Marian celebrations also in Advent (4th Sunday and/or 18 December). The initiative for a feast of Mary’s Divine Maternity as such started much later in Portugal and led in 1751 to a decree by Benedict XIV allowing for Portugal to celebrate Mary’s Divine Maternity on the first Sunday of May. The feast was extended to other countries and to religious congregations, and by 1914, had shifted to October 11. Mary’s Divine Maternity became a universal feast in 1931. Liturgical reform initiated by Vatican II placed it on January 1 (1969). (Father Johann G. Roten, S.M., 1/2/2007)
The Dictionary of the Liturgy contains an entry on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, which, in addition to further showing that there have been changes in the January 1 celebration over the years, provides a little more insight into the mind of the Church:
Prior to the time that this feast occurred on January 1, New Year’s Day was observed as a day of prayer to offset pagan practices, since there were many riotous pagan celebrations. In the 5th century until the Middle Ages it honored Mary and her Divine Maternity. Then it was observed as the Octave of Christmas, which developed into the Feast of the Circumcision. From 1961 to 1969 the title changed back to the Octave of the nativity. Finally in 1969 the ancient Marian character was restored, so that we have its present title.
One can see, then, that the celebration of Solemnity is no great innovation. Further, the Circumcision is retained in the Liturgy by way of the Gospel of St. Luke. Thus, the liturgy retains chief truths of the Faith while emphasizing Mary. The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, taught recently that:
As in a mosaic, today’s liturgy contemplates different events and messianic situations, but attention is especially focused on Mary, Mother of God. Eight days after Jesus’ birth, we commemorate the Mother, the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to the Child who is King of Heaven and earth for ever (cf. Entrance Antiphon; Sedulius).
The liturgy today meditates on the Word made man and repeats that he is born of the Virgin. It reflects on the circumcision of Jesus as a rite of admission to the community and contemplates God who, by means of Mary, gave his Only-Begotten Son to lead the “new people”. It recalls the name given to the Messiah and listens to it spoken with tender sweetness by his Mother. It invokes peace for the world, Christ’s peace, and does so through Mary, Mediatrix and Cooperator of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, nos. 60-61).
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