For whatever reason, I never developed the habit of making New Years resolutions. Knowing myself as I do, I always figured my efforts would end up like this…
In her book Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro suggests that the act of making New Years resolutions goes all the way back to the ancient Babylonians who would make vows to their deities to carry out certain moral tasks like returning borrowed farm equipment to a neighbor. The Romans picked up the habit as a way of honoring Janus, the two-faced forward and backward looking god for whom January is named. Their resolutions consisted mainly in promising to be good to others.
When Christianity came to the forefront after Constantine, the focus turned from simple resolutions to prayer and fasting, especially once the Church began celebrating The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on the first of January (changed to the more palatable Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God in 1969). Of course, in their rush to avoid looking Catholic at all costs, Protestants (in particular the Puritans of all people) eventually abandoned the Church celebrations, instead focusing on a reflection on the year just past and contemplating what to do in the year to come. In short, they inadvertently turned the holiday back towards its pagan origins. You know, kind of like they’ve done with their well meaning fall festivals at Halloween.
So, does that mean Catholics shouldn’t make New Years resolutions? No, of course not. We’ve been “baptizing” pagan things for almost 2,000 years now. But if we really want to see change in ourselves over the next year, remembering to throw in a bit of the old prayer and fasting might not be a bad idea because, as St. Paul put it, those “weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses.” Wonder how Heckle and Jeckle would have faired if they had added a bit of that to their efforts?