New Year’s Day always struck me as something of an odd holiday. Why do we humans find it necessary to set aside a day to mark yet another full trip around the sun? Different cultures have celebrated the new year at different times: the Jewish people celebrate the new year in their liturgy on Rosh Hashanah in the early fall; for many Christians the new liturgical year begins with Advent; the Chinese celebrate between late January and late February; and the ancient Romans celebrated the new year in March. Whatever the month or the day, people of all cultures and religious traditions seem to have an innate desire, if not a need, to mark a new beginning each year.
In our culture one of the most common ways to observe this new beginning is the making of New Year’s resolutions. These resolutions more often than not seem like an exercise in futility – we almost inevitably cave within a month or two. And yet, every year many of us pluck up our will power and try again. What are we to make of this phenomenon? The practice of New Year’s resolutions demonstrates two aspects of our human nature that are important for the spiritual life: our constant need for growth and our inability to persevere by sheer will power.
At the root of the practice of New Year’s resolutions is a dissatisfaction with who we are. Though there are certainly unhealthy kinds of dissatisfaction, in and of itself dissatisfaction is not a bad thing. Only the most arrogant person lacking even an ounce of self-knowledge would actually believe that he has no room for improvement. Making resolutions reminds us that we are not finished products—and breaking them makes this even more obvious. But what’s the point of resolutions if we’re fairly certain we’re not going to keep them? Is there anything to be gained by them?
Perhaps the most important thing about resolutions is not following through with them perfectly, but rather the determination to start over every time we fail. Indeed, for those who take the spiritual life seriously, resolutions should be a regular part of one’s life, not something reserved for New Year’s Day. One common form of the act of contrition said by the penitent during the sacrament of confession ends with the line, “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” Every time we go to confession we are reminded of the need to amend our lives, and we are given the chance to start anew. Penance does not simply remind us of our need to change, however. Note that the prayer says, “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more.” Perhaps part of the reason we fail so often in our resolutions, particularly spiritual ones, is that we forget our total dependence on God’s grace, for, apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
In a way it’s fitting that the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1. Mary’s role in the plan of salvation was a sheer gift of God, and the feast reminds us at the beginning of each new calendar year of God’s generosity and of our need for it. As we begin this New Year, let us be ever mindful of our need for God’s grace, and let us entrust our resolutions to the intercession of the Mother of God, who in her Son has brought us innumerable graces.
Image: Childe Hassam, A New Year’s Nocturne, New York