2019 will finally be the year of working out, losing weight, and sleeping better, according to just about every article written this time of year.
At the start of every January, millions make heartfelt pledges to get rid of old habits, refine daily practices, or start an entirely new regimen of health, fitness, or prayer. These can all be good things when made with the best of intentions. But what makes New Year’s resolutions the butt of jokes is the lack of commitment to them—their tendency to fade away by February 1.
While we would never dissuade the betterment of oneself spiritually or physically at any point, one might suggest that the timing of these resolutions is askew. For Latin Catholics, the liturgical new year starts on the First Sunday of Advent, some 4 weeks before January 1.
And the Christmas celebrations – full of the noble feasts and enjoyment worthy of the season – roll through the twelve days of Christmas into Epiphany, and continue in a lesser sense through Candlemas in February.
So is this, for us, really the best time to commit to a better diet, increase our exercise, or go to bed early? No, let us rejoice without guilt from friends and the media that we need to take life-changing actions because of a calendar page.
At the same time, let us keep an eye on Lent’s quick approach - this year, on March 9 - and prepare for the additional resolutions to be made then. Yes, this seems in contradiction. The days after Christmas seem to be in direct opposition to even mentioning Lent, much less preparing for it. But didn’t Christ Himself always have the Cross before His eyes?
Let us suggest then, 8 simple habits and preparations to be made in the first 8 weeks of the year, leading directly to Ash Wednesday. Each week, add the new suggestion while continuing the prior - all can be done without contradiction to the joyous spirit of the season.
Week 1: On Sundays, explore related passages from Scripture for the liturgical day
Take just 5 minutes each Sunday, open the Bible or collection of sermons, and find a passage to reflect on which corresponds to the day. This coming Sunday's feast of the Holy Family is rich for reflection. The Gospel is taken from Luke 2:42-52, dealing with the loss of Our Lord in the Temple. On the topic of Jesus and the doctors in the temple, one could read from the Psalms, 118:97-104. Or on the moral beauties of a united family, Exod. 20:12, Deut. 5:16; 26:16, Proverbs 17:6; 23:22-25; 30:17; 31:10-31.
Week 2: Go to Mass an Extra Day
While not a possibility for everyone, attending an extra daily Mass during the week than we normally do is possible for many. Even if this means waking up earlier, shifting a work schedule slightly, or sitting in traffic for 30 minutes, it's worth the sacrifice. Even attending one Mass provides more graces than we could imagine, as St. Lawrence Justinian states: “No human tongue can enumerate the favors that trace back to the Sacrifice of the Mass. The sinner is reconciled with God; the just man becomes more upright; sins are wiped away; vices are uprooted; virtue and merit increases; and the devil’s schemes are frustrated.”
For those who do not have the ability to make an extra daily Mass, make a habit of setting aside 15 minutes during the morning with your missal, meditating on the Proper of the day, and making a Spiritual Communion.
Week 3: Practice Generosity
Beyond the precept of the Church that requires us to give of our fruits, generosity is more than money. Sometimes the greater generosity is that of time. This week, make one act of generous time that you ordinarily would not do. For husbands and fathers, perhaps go into work early, so you can leave a bit early in order to spend extra time with children. For mothers, perhaps it’s an unsolicited offer to help another mother watch her children for the afternoon or simply 15 minutes of meditation during the week in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
Week 4: Practice Purity of Intention
We recently celebrated the feast of St. Agnes, who is venerated for her purity. But purity can go beyond the mandates of the 6th and 9th commandment. Let us also reflect on our intentions during this week before we take an action – is this task, conversation, or recreation I am about to undertake done for the greater glory of God, or is it self-serving?
Week 5: Practice Silence
In Lamentations, and throughout scripture, the preference for us to be silent in prayer and meditation is a recurring theme; “It is good to wait with silence for the salvation of God” (Lam. 3:26) This week, make an effort once a day to allow another to speak, or to refrain from an idle comment. You may be surprised at the frequency this happens. St. Joseph is also a shining example throughout the Christmas gospels: be silent, allowing others to shine more than you.
Week 6: Practice Gratitude
This week make it a practice to find ordinary things throughout the day to be grateful for. It could be gratitude to another, say a coworker for a task they perform daily and it has become so routine we don’t offer anything beyond the mumbled “thanks.” Or it could be a small prayer of thanksgiving to God for the gifts of health, family, a Catholic education for your children, or stable employment. And as we come closer to Lent, let us be especially grateful to Our Lord and his priests for the unbound mercy in the confessional.
Week 7: Say the Angelus
In churches and priories, the practice of saying the Angelus is common. In homes and our daily lives, it is less so. At first, we can make it a habit to say it just once a day – maybe after we wake with our morning prayers. Then, add it to your lunchtime and dinner routine, so along with the Church, you can unite yourself to Our Blessed Mother three times each day.
Week 8: Share Your Faith
Mention "apostolizing" and you'll get an eye roll. The door-to-door evangelists and placard-carrying preachers have made a parody out of the true sense of apostilization. But no socially-awkward means are needed! It can be a casual mention of your favorite feast day, or the fact that Lent is around the corner. Also, there's nothing wrong with responding to a water cooler greeting with, "My day's going great - I was able to get to Mass this morning which really helped, then..." and carry on the conversation. For a closer friend, an easy invitation to one (or several) of the beautiful liturgical ceremonies during Lent would be a minor task - yet one that could yield eternal fruit. Being a simple, cheerful, serious ambassador of Catholicism is the duty of us all, and the greatest way of spreading beauty and Truth.
Many experts agree that habits are made or broken within 6-8 weeks. Let us use these first 8 weeks of the year to rejoice in the mystery of the Incarnation, and prepare in a small way for the mortifications and penances of Lent. With this spiritual preparation, our Lenten resolutions – the true time for resolutions – can be achieved more successfully than any temporal New Year’s resolution could be.