Here’s a pop quiz: Did you know that January 1st is a Holy Day of obligation? Do you know what the word “obligation” means? No, it doesn’t mean, “If I feel like it,” although that seems to be the way most American Catholics have defined the word in recent decades.
Here’s another question: WHY is January 1st a Holy Day of obligation? No, it’s not because it’s the New Year’s Day holiday. No, it’s not an opportunity to go to Church and pray for our favorite football team to win later that afternoon. And no, it’s not some kind of penance, where we are forced to go to Mass in the morning with a pounding headache because we did a little too much celebrating at a New Year’s Eve party the night before. (Which might explain why so many guys seem to wake up each year on January 1st with lampshades on their heads.)
The reason January 1st is a Holy Day of obligation is because it is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. You remember Mary, right? She was front and center in all those the crèches displayed on suburban front lawns, gently gazing down at the newborn baby Jesus. You can’t have Christmas without Mary, which means without her, there would be no Incarnation, no Savior of the World.
Since Jesus is fully God—and was so, even during the time He walked the earth with a human body—and since Mary gave birth to Him, the Church very logically proclaims that Mary is the Mother of God.
Now, some of our friends in other Christian traditions claim that Catholics worship Mary as if she were equal to God, somehow making her the fourth person of the Trinity. No, that’s not true. There are no job openings in the Trinity right now. That divine trio does not need to be a quartet (no matter how much they could use a good soprano). We Catholics give honor and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but we do not worship her.
Mary is the preeminent of all saints. She is so special that she has three different Holy Days of “if I feel like it,” er, I mean, Holy Days of obligation. There is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the feast of the Assumption, and the feast on January 1st, Mary the Holy Mother of God.
Speaking of saints, what about poor old St. Joseph? He repeatedly received divine messages and instructions during dreams. After a while he must have been terrified to go to sleep at night. And just imagine what it was like for him as a member of the Holy Family. Just remember, his wife was sinless and his child was God. So whenever anything went wrong in that household all eyes immediately turned toward Joseph. Good thing Mary and Jesus were so compassionate and understanding.
As Catholics, we have a terrific doctrine known as the Communion of Saints. Scripture clearly teaches that the saints in Heaven are cheering us on, as if we here on earth are competing in a stadium. (No, we’re not playing in a bowl game on New Year’s Day.) So don’t hesitate to go to Mary and Joseph in prayer and ask them to intercede for you and your loved ones.
Now, one last pop quiz question: Since Mary, the Mother of God, is such a wonderful saint, are you going to go to Mass on January 1st to honor her? Good, glad to hear it. But before you leave the house to go to Church, remember to take the lamp shade off your head.