08 September 2009

Mary: God's House that Shines with Divine Splendor

On this day’s Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Carthusian night Office, and more specifically the hour of Matins, contains twelve Readings. The first eight Readings are excerpted from the Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus by Pope Paul VI. Here are those Readings.

Reading One:
We now wish to examine more closely a particular aspect of the relationship between Mary and the liturgy -- namely, Mary as a model of the spiritual attitude with which the Church celebrates and lives the divine mysteries. That the Blessed Virgin is an exemplar in this field derives from the fact that she is recognized as a most excellent exemplar of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ, that is, of that interior disposition with which the Church, the beloved spouse, closely associated with her Lord, invokes Christ and through Him worships the eternal Father. Mary is the attentive Virgin, who receives the word of God with faith, that faith which in her case was the gateway and path to divine motherhood, for, as Saint Augustine realized, "Blessed Mary by believing conceived Him (Jesus) Whom believing she brought forth." It was faith that was for her the cause of blessedness and certainty in the fulfillment of the promise: "Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled." Similarly, it was faith with which she, who played a part in the Incarnation and was a unique witness to it, thinking back on the events of the infancy of Christ, meditated upon these events in her heart. The Church also acts in this way, especially in the liturgy, when with faith she listens, accepts, proclaims and venerates the word of God, distributes it to the faithful as the Bread of Life and in the light of that word examines the signs of the times and interprets and lives the events of history.

Reading Two:
Mary is also the Virgin in prayer. She appears as such in the visit to the mother of the precursor, when she pours out her soul in expressions glorifying God, and expressions of humility, faith and hope. This prayer is the Magnificat, Mary's prayer par excellence, the song of the messianic times in which there mingles the joy of the ancient and the new Israel. As Saint Irenaeus seems to suggest, it is in Mary's canticle that there was heard once more the rejoicing of Abraham who foresaw the Messiah and there rang out in prophetic anticipation the voice of the Church: In her exultation Mary prophetically declared in the name of the Church: "My soul proclaims the glory of the Lord." And in fact Mary's hymn has spread far and wide and has become the prayer of the whole Church in all ages. At Cana, Mary appears once more as the Virgin in prayer: when she tactfully told her Son of a temporal need she also obtained an effect of grace, namely, that Jesus, in working the first of His signs, confirmed His disciples' faith in Him.

Reading Three:
Likewise, the last description of Mary's life presents her as praying. The apostles "joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with His brothers." We have here the prayerful presence of Mary in the early Church and in the Church throughout all ages, for, having been assumed into heaven, she has not abandoned her mission of intercession and salvation. The title Virgin in prayer also fits the Church, which day by day presents to the Father the needs of her children, praises the Lord unceasingly and intercedes for the salvation of the world. Mary is also the Virgin-Mother -- she who believing and obeying, brought forth on earth the Father's Son. This she did, not knowing man but overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. This was a miraculous Motherhood, set up by God as the type and exemplar of the fruitfulness of the Virgin-Church, which becomes herself a Mother. For by her preaching and by baptism she brings forth to a new and immortal life, children who are conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of God.

Reading Four:
The ancient Fathers rightly taught that the Church prolongs in the Sacrament of Baptism the virginal Motherhood of Mary. Among such references we like to recall that of our illustrious predecessor, Saint Leo the Great, who in a Christmas homily says: "The origin which Christ took in the womb of the Virgin He has given to the baptismal font: He has given to water what He had given to His Mother -- the power of the Most High and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, which was responsible for Mary's bringing forth the Savior, has the same effect, so that water may regenerate the believer." If we wished to go to liturgical sources, we could quote the beautiful Illatio of the Mozarabic liturgy: "The former [Mary] carried Life in her womb; the latter [the Church] bears Life in the waters of baptism. In Mary's members Christ was formed; in the waters of the Church Christ is put on." Mary is, finally, the Virgin presenting offerings. In the episode of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Church, guided by the Spirit, has detected, over and above the fulfillment of the laws regarding the offering of the firstborn and the purification of the mother, a mystery of salvation related to the history of salvation.

Reading Five:
In the episode of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Church has noted the continuity of the fundamental offering that the Incarnate Word made to the Father when He entered the world. The Church has seen the universal nature of salvation proclaimed, for Simeon, greeting in the Child the Light to enlighten the peoples and the glory of the people Israel, recognized in Him the Messiah, the Savior of all. The Church has understood the prophetic reference to the Passion of Christ: the fact that Simeon's words, which linked in one prophecy the Son as "the sign of contradiction" and the Mother, whose soul would be pierced by a sword, came true on Calvary. A mystery of salvation, therefore, that in its various aspects orients the episode of the Presentation in the Temple to the salvific event of the Cross. But the Church herself, in particular from the Middle Ages onwards, has detected in the heart of the Virgin taking her Son to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord a desire to make an offering, a desire that exceeds the ordinary meaning of the rite. A witness to this intuition is found in the loving prayer of Saint Bernard: "Offer your Son, holy Virgin, and present to the Lord the blessed fruit of your womb. Offer for the reconciliation of us all the holy Victim which is pleasing to God."

Reading Six:
This union of the Mother and the Son in the work of redemption reaches its climax on Calvary, where Christ "offered Himself as the perfect Sacrifice to God" and where Mary stood by the Cross, suffering grievously with her only-begotten Son. There she united herself with a maternal heart to His Sacrifice, and lovingly consented to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth and also was offering to the eternal Father. To perpetuate down the centuries the Sacrifice of the Cross, the Divine Savior instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the memorial of His death and Resurrection, and entrusted it to His spouse the Church, which, especially on Sundays, calls the faithful together to celebrate the Passover of the Lord until He comes again. This the Church does in union with the saints in heaven and in particular with the Blessed Virgin, whose burning charity and unshakable faith she imitates.

Reading Seven:
Mary is not only an example for the whole Church in the exercise of divine worship but is also, clearly, a teacher of the spiritual life for individual Christians. The faithful at a very early date began to look to Mary and to imitate her in making their lives an act of worship of God and making their worship a commitment of their lives. As early as the fourth century, Saint Ambrose, speaking to the people, expressed the hope that each of them would have the spirit of Mary in order to glory God: "May the heart of Mary be in each Christian to proclaim the greatness of the Lord; may her spirit be in everyone to exult in God." But Mary is above all the example of that worship that consists in making one's life an offering to God. This is an ancient and ever new doctrine that each individual can hear again by heeding the Church's teaching, but also by heeding the very voice of the Virgin as she, anticipating in herself the wonderful petition of the Lord's Prayer -- "Your will be done" -- replied to God's messenger: "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me." And Mary's "yes" is for all Christians a lesson and example of obedience to the will of the Father, which is the way and means of one's own sanctification.

Reading Eight:
It is also important to note how the Church expresses in various effective attitudes of devotion the many relationships that bind her to Mary: in profound veneration, when she reflects on the singular dignity of the Virgin who, through the action of the Holy Spirit has become Mother of the Incarnate Word; in burning love, when she considers the spiritual Motherhood of Mary towards all members of the Mystical Body; in trusting invocation; when she experiences the intercession of her advocate and helper; in loving service, when she sees in the humble handmaid of the Lord the Queen of mercy and the Mother of grace; in zealous imitation, when she contemplates the holiness and virtues of her who is "full of grace"; in profound wonder, when she sees in her, as in a faultless model, that which she herself wholly desires and hopes to be"; in attentive study, when she recognizes in the associate of the Redeemer, who already shares fully in the fruits of the Paschal Mystery, the prophetic fulfillment of her own future, until the day on which, when she has been purified of every spot and wrinkle, she will become like a bride arrayed for the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

The ninth and tenth Readings are taken from the Gospel, Matthew 1:1-16, and a discourse from Hugo of St. Victor, a medieval philosopher, theologian and mystical writer.

The eleventh and twelfth Readings are from a homily by Saint Theodore the Studite on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saint Theodore was a late eighth and early ninth century Byzantine monk and abbot. Here’s a short excerpt:

"What wonder! In His immense love for mankind, God was not ashamed to take His handmaid as Mother. Unprecedented condescension of the Lord! In His infinite goodness, He did not hesitate to become a Child of her that He had modeled. Of her the prophet Zechariah says: ‘Rejoice, rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, behold, I come to dwell among you’ (Zechariah 2:14). But I feel blessed Joel was proclaiming more or less the same thing: ‘Do not worry, O land, but rejoice and be glad, because great things the Lord has made’ (Joel 2:21). Mary is the land on which the One Who founded the earth from the beginning is moulded in the flesh, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Mary is the land that, without being planted, has opened up the fruit that gives everyone Food. Hail the Lord's place, a land that God has touched with His steps. Hail, God's house, the home that shines with divine splendor."