There's something about New Year's that inspires hope in me. Every year, during those first seven of the Twelve Days of Christmas, I find myself actively and enthusastically contemplating the start of a new year. No matter how tattered (or forgotten) last year's resolutions are, I am confident that this year will be different. Maybe it's the glow from the Christmas lights, but snarky and cynical shadows of how well last year's resolutions went don't have a chance. It's a New Year, and in some way I can be new, too.
What if I were to tell you about a Catholic tradition that could potentially address three areas that may already be on your short list for New Year's resolutions, and would not require an overwhelming degree of focus or commitment? Maybe you are looking forward to something “new” in your own life as the New Year begins. It may relate to your health, or your pace of life, or your relationship with God. We all know the advice about resolutions: make them few, make them specific and make them concrete!
We are all familiar with how our Muslim neighbors respond to the “call to prayer.” They put everything on hold five times a day, giving priority to their commitment to God. Five times a day, they remember and reaffirm their core beliefs. And five times a day, their faith relieves them of the momentary or building pressures of work, school, commitments and relationships. Catholics have their own “call to prayer” three times a day. The Angelus is a bible-based prayer in which we remember and honor the central moment of history, the same earth-shaking reality we are celebrating now in the Christmas
season: God becoming fully human.
This short prayer (it takes about two minutes) is traditionally recited at the beginning, middle and end of the workday. It hearkens back to the praying of the Psalms every morning, midday and evening by the early Christian communities (a practice continued in all its authenticity in monasteries around the world). The Angelus offers us a healthy pause, a step back from our hectic schedules or from the concerns and frustrations that can sometimes lodge so deeply that we end up taking them everywhere we go. By drawing us aside for those two minutes, the Angelus helps us pace ourselves more humanely and allows us a brief but restoring encounter with God.
In the morning, the Angelus can open us to the ways God may manifest himself in our life that day, inviting us to respond with Mary, “be it done to me.” At noon, the Angelus invites us to look back: what invitations has God sent me today to participate in making his Kingdom just a little more present in our time? As the workday ends, the Angelus assures us that God continues to “dwell among us” in the most ordinary aspects of life. Our homes are not, after all, essentially different from the family home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In this way, the Angelus works like the prayer of the Examen so strongly recommended by St Ignatius of Loyola. It sensitizes us to the ways God acts in the here and now of our lives, bit by bit transforming our habitual ways of seeing or interpreting things.
Praying the Angelus is simple: It consists of three sets of verses, somewhat in a call:response pattern (ideal for praying with others), followed by an invocation of Mary and closing with a prayer that closely mirrors the “collect” or Opening Prayer of the Mass on the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Most people pray the Hail Mary in between each verse set.
The Angel of the Lord declared to Mary: And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. (Hail Mary...)
Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it done unto me according to Thy word. (Hail Mary...)
And the Word was made Flesh: And dwelt among us. (Hail Mary...)
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray: Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.
The Angelus fixes our attention on the pivotal moment in salvation history: the Annunciation. We find ourselves at the center of the Bible, watching as Gabriel brings Mary the long-promised, but mind-boggling message that God is about to enter history himself, with her cooperation. Everything hangs on Mary's response to God. So important is this scene that there are probably more artistic depictions of the Annunciation than of any other event in the Bible. The Angelus Project is a blog that each week offers an image of the Annunciation, from ancient icons to modern art, to accompany the praying of the Angelus. The beauty of the art may contribute to helping you keep the New Year's resolution to “do something spiritual” every day, by praying the Angelus!
Happy New Year!
Sister Anne Flanagan, FSP
About the image:
Sister Mary Lou Winters, FSP (of our UK delegation) designed a lovely prayer card that you can download and have printed in bulk. Visit The Angelus Project for the links, or simply download the files (download front image here; download the reverse, with the prayer, here) and bring them on a flash drive to your local print shop.