The Christian New Year is celebrated on January 1, one week after the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Over the centuries, the January 1st observance has been known by several different names that reveal something of the nature of the feast. We could say that this feast is rich in names, meaning, and mission. First of all, the Christian New Year is within the Octave of Christmas (i.e. eight days after the birth of Jesus). Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Christian New Year was called the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus or the Naming of Jesus (the Holy Name of Jesus). After the Council, January 1st was established as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, and is also designated as the World Day of Prayer for Peace.
At first glance, we may ask ourselves if the New Year’s Feast has accumulated so many different meanings that people no longer pay attention to it. Furthermore, isn’t it also true that the atmosphere of revelry attached to New Year’s Eve hardly leaves anyone with the energy, desire, or willingness to consider New Year’s Day as a religious feast? Let’s consider some of the biblical foundations for the various meanings attached to the Christian New Year.
In antiquity and in the Scriptures, it is a common belief that the name given to a person is not just a label but part of the personality of the one who bears it. The name carries will and power. Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Jewish parents. At his conception, an angel proclaimed that his name would be “Jesus.” Eight days after his birth, Jesus underwent circumcision, the enduring sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The Greek christos translates the Hebrew mashiah, “anointed one.” By this name Christians confessed their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. In the New Testament, the name, person, and work of God are inseparably linked to those of Jesus Christ. True disciples of Jesus are to pray in his name. Believing in the name of Jesus is believing in Him as the Christ, the Son of God. The name of Jesus has power only where there is faith and obedience. Believing in His holy name leads to confession of the name. Calling on this name is salvation.
“Mary” comes from the Hebrew “Miriam,” which is probably from the Egyptian word meaning “beloved.” She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. Mary received and welcomed God’s word in the fullest sense, not knowing how the story would finally end. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus’ life but she trusted and constantly recaptured the initial response she had given the angel and literally “kept it alive,” in her heart. It was only on a Friday afternoon at Calvary, some 33 years later, that she would experience the full responsibility of her “yes.”
Vatican II gave Mary a new title. For the first time, the Church officially referred to her as the “Mother of God,” a title with a rich Scriptural foundation. Mary is mother both of the Messiah and of the new people of God — the individual person and the whole people being very closely united. Mary’s womanhood is not in itself a sign of salvation but it is significant for the manner and way in which salvation happens. There is salvation in no other name but that of the man, Jesus; but through this woman, Mary, we have humanity’s assent to salvation. The Holy Names of Jesus and Mary are joined together in a very special way.
The most recent “theme” attached to the Christian New Year has been the “World Day of Prayer for Peace.” Christians are invited to begin a New Year by praying for peace. But this action is not limited only to those who celebrate New Year’s on January 1! It is not enough for us simply to pray for peace. We must work for peace, together. That is the work of those who long for the Messiah’s kingdom to fully take hold of our lives and our world.
New Year’s is a time to reminisce about the past and to share hopes for the future. Authentic religion teaches us a reverence for life and gives us a sense of the holiness of God’s name. The Jewish-Christian God speaks this word to all peoples: ‘Seek me and live,’ and ‘Choose life.’ In a world filled with so many voices and things demanding first place, Judaism and Christianity recognize God as sovereign over all creation.
At the beginning of this New Year of grace, may the Lord give us an ever-deeper sense of the holiness of the names of Jesus and Mary. May God send us out on his mission, to be instruments and agents of life and peace.