I was ordained less than a year when a friend told me about a priest thundering from the pulpit about people not attending Mass.
“What’s so wrong about that?” I asked innocently.
“Only that every single person he was talking to was already at Mass,” he replied.
It’s a good point. Not much use ranting to the people who are in church about those who aren’t.
When I was a boy, the requirement to attend Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation was front and center in Catholic life. Looking back, I realize how cleverly the Church reinforced holy days of obligation—the seven or eight weekdays when we had to go to Mass: if you went to a Catholic school, holy days were holidays! Going to Mass seemed a small price for a day without class.
That’s just a distant memory. Only two holy days of obligation are left: Christmas Day and January 1. If I were running things, you wouldn’t have the last remaining obligatory feasts only a week apart.
But, luckily for the Church, I’m not running things. Because today really does deserve its high place on the liturgical calendar. If you doubt it, just take a look at the three readings we’ve just heard.
The message of the first reading is pretty obvious. These beautiful words from the Book of Numbers invite us to seek the Lord’s blessing on the year ahead. New Year’s Day is the perfect time to pray for that, for ourselves, for our family and friends, and for our world. We should have this mind all through Mass today.
Notice also that Aaron’s prayer includes the blessing of peace. Since the time of Pope Paul VI, January 1 has been the World Day of Peace. Every year the Pope writes a message about peace; this year Pope Francis speaks about nonviolence, about “becoming nonviolent people” and “building nonviolent communities that care for our common home.”
That seems an impossible dream, since the Pope himself says that we are “engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal.”
How can it be possible to embrace Christ’s teaching about nonviolence in such a situation? The Pope answers that very simply: “Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace.”
And so, today, we pray for peace.
The second reading and the Gospel both focus our attention on Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God. God’s Son was “born of a woman” that he might truly be Son of God and Son of Man. God’s Son was “born under the law,” sharing our condition fully so that he might redeem us fully.
And the Gospel adds another important element to this day. It records the circumcision of Jesus, who according to the law was circumcised eight days after his birth. On this octave day of Christmas, this ritual of the old law marks the beginning of its end; Mary and Joseph obey the Mosaic Law, unaware that Jesus will fulfill it and make the ritual unnecessary.
We notice too that Jesus is given his name at his circumcision. St. Luke doesn’t explain the meaning of the name, but St. Matthew does. His Gospel reports the words of the angel to St. Joseph: “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
So much on one day: the beginning and blessing of a new year; a day to pray for peace in our terrorized world; the truth of God made man so that we might become his adopted children; the role of Mary in this great mystery; the Holy Family’s humble submission to the old law; and finally the Holy Name of Jesus, revealing him as one who rescues and saves.
When January 1 falls on a Sunday, we tend to forget that it’s otherwise a holy day of obligation on the Church calendar in Canada. But when we look at all that’s happening, maybe we’ll make sure to be at Mass on Monday, January 1, 2018.