From Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective
The fundamental liturgical structures of the Marian feasts communicate first of all an atmosphere that mystically envelops the venerator of Mary. And the prayers and hymns of these feasts attempt to articulate further this specifically Marian sense of life. There exists here a characteristic dialectic between a verbal and melodius exuberance and a blissful movement into silence. The famous Hymnos akathistos, for example, allows the entire height and depth of the Marian mystery to shine forth in ever new cascades of words, as we can observe in the following lines:
Hail, Mother of the most holy star;
hail, Morning light of the mystical life.
Hail, you who extinguish smoldering error;
hail, you who show their majesty to all consecrated to the Trinity.
Hail, you who drive away brutality and inhumanity;
hail, in Christ we see the friend of humanity as Lord.
Hail, you who free us from pagan worship;
hail, you who preserve us from the offspring of discord.
Hail, you who put an end to the worship of fire;
hail, you who free those obsessed with greed.
Hail, you who show the faithful the path of Wisdom;
hail, you who fill all creatures with bliss.
Hail, you virgin Mother!
On the other hand, the no less famous poet Paul Claudel wishes to say nothing to or about Mary when he confesses:
At midday I see the church open,
It draws me within.
I come, Mother of Jesus Christ,
Not to pray.
I have nothing to bring you,
Or to ask of you.
I only come, O Mother,
To gaze at you,
To see you, to cry simply out of joy,
Because I know that I am your child,
And that you are there. . . .
With these words the poet brings to expression an utterly decisive moment of the Catholic devotion to Mary – simply to dwell in the movement of this holy life; to experience the healing power of the purity and benevolent understanding; on the road to one’s destination to be already a little at home.
In no century is there a dearth of prayers and hymns. Even to this day some of these are recited or sung, but for the most part they have become components of a rather vast anthology. Many of these items must be sung in order that the full richness of religious emotion and passionate devotion that they contain may be experienced. This is principally true of the Marian antiphons that conclude the church’s Office of the Hours. And these cannot without consequence be deprived of their Latin linguistic finery, in which alone the full value of their unmistakable mixture of inwardness and precision comes to expression: “Salve Regina, mater misericordiae” (“Hail, holy Queen, mother of mercy”); “alma redemptoris mater” (“nurturing Mother of our Redeemer”); “Regina caeli, laetare” (“Queen of Heaven, rejoice”).
These antiphonal melodies have become such an integral part of the solemn feasts and different seasons of the church year that they automatically swell into the hearts and minds and flow from the lips of the Catholic worshiper. Mary appears in them as an entirely self-evident and in some way necessary ingredient of the church’s life. With few words the fundamental importance of Mary to us is regularly recalled.
Similar accents are set by the other ancient Marian prayers of common usage, of which naturally the Magnificent (“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”) holds pride of place. This prayer is actually the prayer of Mary herself, which the church now makes its own. But the oldest Marian prayer, which begins with the words, “Sub tuum praesidium” (“Under your protection”) does not long sustain the posture of exaggerated courtesy but comes immediately to the point:
We flee to your protection, O holy Mother of God. In our needs do not disdain our prayer, but save us at all times from all dangers, O glorious and favored Virgin, our Lady, our Mediatrix, our Advocate. Lead us to your Son; commend us to your Son; present us to your Son.
A similar understanding and emotion is to be found in the “Hail, Mary” (“Ave Maria”) or in the popular prayer of Bernard of Clairvaux: “Remember, most loving Virgin Mary” (Memorare). None of our modern skepticism can infect the clear knowledge of salvation that allures in these brief and colorful prayers. Everything is fundamentally clear. The one praying knows who Mary is and who her Son is. One knows that one is a sinner, that our life in the world is not a harmless game, and that God is Father. One knows that one is a sinner, that our life in the world is not a harmless game, and that God is Father. One knows the way and the destination. Thus one’s prayer with the two moments in view that especially matter: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinner, now and at the hour of our death!”
The rosary, the Angelus, and also the Litany of Loretto expand on these basic Marian prayers. Remaining within the sphere of this simple world of faith, they demonstrate, however, a higher level of specialization. The Angelus, for instance, prayed in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, intends to embed the moment of the Incarnation into every hour of our time. In this way, it constantly and newly strengthens the ties between time and eternity.
In like manner, the rosary is of importance in making use of the Ave Maria for mediation purposes. In connection with the rosary, a totally new function accrues to this primordial Marian prayer. It is not the content of the prayer that stands in the forefront, but rather its capacity for being a means of flowing beyond oneself into the mysteries of the incarnation, of the suffering and glorification of Christ in the Spirit, which are considered in connection with Mary. The Litany of Loretto, on the other hand, is a roughly and simply constructed prayer that takes up the concerns of the hymnos akathistos in the more sober language of Rome. The few flights of lyrical fancy remain precious ornamentation, which does not develop into any thematic of its own.
And what of the incalculable number of hymns that are the favorites at the Marian devotions, on pilgrimages, for the religious consecrations of our lives, and at the special novenas? Because chaff and wheat are brought together in these situations in an easy harmony, one must proceed critically with what is offered. But it is entirely worth the effort. In the midst of unrestrained effusions or purse-lipped complaints or accusations, there is a good deal of the praise of Mary that is popular but also of a high religious quality. Thus all can presumably lend themselves to the spirit of the piece when they hear sung:
Mary, my intention is to love you at all times,
you were granted the fullness of grace:
upon you, Virgin, the Spirit descended,
you, Mother, have gifted us with the Savior.
The precise way in which popular Marian piety knows how to connect Christian belief with a valuable appreciation of the religious quality of nature is always impressive. In doing this, it maintains for the life of the church that warmth and delight that it needs.