Tag Archives: Mary

Feast of the Birth of Mary (September 8)

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Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

The Feast of Mary’s Birth has been celebrated by churches of the east and west since the 4th and 5th centuries, when the Emperor Constantine and his successors built churches over important biblical sites in the Holy Land. Christian pilgrims, after experiencing feasts in these churches, began celebrating them in their own churches back home.

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Ruins of Bethesda and ancient church
Paralytic

The feast of Mary’s Birth was celebrated in a church built in the 5th century over the ancient pool of Bethesda, near the Gate of St. Stephen, just north of the Jewish temple. John’s gospel recognized this place:  “Now there was in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate, a pool in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of the blind, lame and crippled,”  (John 5,2) At this healing place, where pagan gods  like Asclepius and Serapis were honored, Jesus healed a paralyzed man.  

In the last century archeologists uncovered the ancient healing pool with its porticoes, parts of an ancient church and ruins of a temple of Asclepius (2nd-4th century) ..

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Ruins of the Temple of Serapis
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Early on, the church over the ancient healing pool became associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Traditions from the 3rd century placed her home in this area of Jerusalem, and so Mary’s birth and early life came to be remembered here.

Mary’s mother was Anne and her father Joachim, who provided sheep for the temple sacrifices, early traditions said. But they were looked down upon, because they were old and childless. Then, angels told them they were to conceive a daughter. Their faith, like that of Abraham and Sarah, was miraculously rewarded.

The Birth of Mary and stories of her childhood strongly influenced the spirituality and devotional life of all the early Christian churches. Mary’s birth is celebrated September 8 in the churches of east and west. Her parents are honored  September 9 by the Greek Church. The Roman Church celebrates their feast July 27th.

When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in the 11th century, they rebuilt the small church over the healing pool, fallen into ruins, and built a new, larger church honoring St. Anne, the mother of Mary, southeast of the pool.

The present Church of St. Ann, today one of the most beautiful of Jerusalem’s churches, stands overlooking the remains of the old church and the healing pool,  a favorite destination for pilgrims today.

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Church of St. Anne, interior

Readings for the feast of Mary’s Birth see her birth awaited by all her ancestors. The gospel, St.Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, begins with Abraham. Mary fulfilled his hopes and the hopes of generations before him by bringing Jesus Christ into the world.. “We commemorate the birth of the blessed Virgin Mary, a descendant of Abraham, born of the tribe of Judah and of David’s seed,” (Antiphon, 1st Vespers, Roman rite)

“This feast of the birth of the Mother of God is the prelude, while the final act is the foreordained union of the Word with flesh. Today, the Virgin is born, tended and formed and prepared for her role as Mother of God, who is the universal King of the ages…
Today the created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
(St. Andrew of Crete, bishop, Office of Readings, Roman rite)

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St.Ann and Mary, her child

This feast of Mary is the first great feast of the Orthodox year, which begins in September. Their calendar ends with the feast of Mary’s Dormition, on August 15th.

The Orthodox liturgy sees Mary as the mysterious ladder that Jacob saw in a dream reaching from earth to heaven. (Genesis 28,10-17) She is the way the Word comes down to earth’s lowest point, death itself, and returns to heaven having redeemed humanity. The Orthodox liturgy also associates  Mary with the miracle of the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda. She has a role in healing our paralyzed humanity.

The Queenship of Mary

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“Christians live from feast to feast,” St. Athanasius said. The church’s feasts are linked to each other; all are linked to the great feast of the Resurrection of Jesus.

The Assumption of Mary into Heaven, August 14, leads to the Feast of the Queenship of Mary, August 22, a feast introduced into the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church in 1955 to celebrate the privileged place of Mary in heaven. She “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.” ( Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium 59)

Royal titles were commonly given to God and those anointed by God in the Old Testament; Christianity continued the pratice, giving royal titles to Jesus and Mary. She is called queen in traditional Christian prayers like the Hail Holy Queen and Queen of Heaven:

“Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in the valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile, show to us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promise of Christ.

Those called a queen, Mary on her part knows her greatness is from her Lord, as she acknowledges in her Magnificat:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. He who is mighty has done great things to me; holy is his name.” ( Luke 1, 46-55)

Fra Angelico captures Mary’s humility in his portrayal of her (above), bowing before her Son. Honors given to her are a reflection of the graces promised to humanity.

“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

Blessing Herbs, Medicines and Fields: August 15th

On the Feast of the Assumption in medieval times, especially in northern Europe, medicinal herbs were blessed. The fields were also blessed that day asking they be fertile next year.

At the end of the feast day Mass,  herbs were brought into the church or to a holy well. They were sprinkled with water and prayers were said thanking God for caring for and healing us through the gifts of creation. The herbs were then brought home and a sprig was placed on the wall where children slept, asking God to keep them strong and healthy.

Why were herbs and fields blessed on the Feast of the Assumption?   Mary is often identified with flowers; she’s the “flower of the field and the lily of the valley”;  she brought life and healing through Jesus, her Son.

You’re invited to bring some herbs to our Mary Garden after the 11AM Mass in our monastery chapel on August 15th . You can plant them there or take them home, but don’t forget to put a sprig over a child’s bed (or maybe your own). Don’t forget also to bless your own garden with holy water that day.

I can remember as a kid being told on the Feast of the Assumption to go into the water (in those days  the Newark Bay, polluted waters now). There’s a cure in the water! I’m sure it came from this custom.

We’re connected to creation. We need to remember. Let’s bless herbs and fields on the Feast of the Assumption.

St.Mary Major

Basilica of St. Mary Major
Basilica of St. Mary Major

St. Mary Major

Mary, the mother of Jesus, welcomes us to this church, the largest and most ancient of her many churches in Rome. On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church was begun in the early 5th century and completed by Pope Sixtus III (432-440.)

Hardly a good time to build a church. In 410, Alaric and his Goths shocked the Roman world by sacking the city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized the city. Twice more in the century other barbarian tribes invaded.

The English historian Edward Gibbon called this period a time of decline and fall.

In far off Palestine St. Jerome cried out in disbelief at Rome’s misfortunes. In Africa St. Augustine replied to the followers of Rome’s traditional religions, who said Christian weakness caused the city’s devastation, by writing his treatise “The City of God.”

Christians were not the cause the city’s misfortunes, the saint said; two loves are at work in the world building two cities. One love builds an evil city; Christianity builds the City of God, promoting love and justice, even in hard times .

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is honored in this church.  The Christian world then saw her as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine. In 431, the Council  of Ephesus repudiated Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to call her “Mother of God.” The title safeguarded Christian belief in the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is God and man, the council said.

The title does not make Mary a goddess, otherwise how could she have given birth to Christ who is truly human? Yet, she can be called Mother of God, because Jesus who is truly her human son is truly Son of God from all eternity as well.

Devotion to Mary ran high in the Christian world after the council, and churches dedicated to her arose everywhere. In the city of Constantinople alone, 250 churches and shrines in her honor were built before the 8th century. Pictures, icons of Mary holding her divine child multiplied, especially in churches of the East, where they became objects of special devotion.

St. Mary Major was not built just as a doctrinal statement, however, it also shored up the spirits of frightened Christians who lived in dangerous times. On its walls stories from the Old and New Testaments called for courage and hope. God’s plan does not lead to decline and fall, they say, but to triumph in Christ.

In this church, Mary is Jesus’ mother and closest disciple. This place is “a school of Mary” – to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II–who teaches the mysteries she has learned.

She is a leading figure in the sacred stories depicted here and is joined by a noticeable number of women from the Old and New Testaments who like her seem powerless, but are empowered by God.

The great 13th century mosaic in the church’s apse of Mary crowned by Jesus Christ as heaven’s queen proclaims God’s triumph in her, but also his triumph in the church as well. She is taken up to heaven “to be the beginning and pattern of the church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.” (Preface of the Assumption)

It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the mysteries in which Mary had a special role were first celebrated  here as liturgical feasts. The Christmas liturgy, especially the midnight Mass on December 25th ,  began in this church  in the 5th century and spread to other churches of the west. Early on, a replica of the cave under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was constructed here. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century,  Christian refugees placed relics here purported to be from the crib that bore the Christ Child and relics of St.Matthew, an evangelist who told the story of Jesus birth.

Besides the Christmas liturgy, other great Marian feasts, such as her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, developed their liturgical forms in this church.

Built on a hill where all could see it, near Rome’s eastern walls so often threatened by barbarian armies, St. Mary Major affirms Christianity’s ultimate answer to its enemies. It is not military might, but the power of faith and love that triumphs in the end.

Visiting St.Mary Major

The church’s 18th century façade was built by the popes to enhance the appearance of this  important church at a time when many visitors, especially  from England and Germany, were traveling to Rome on the Grand Tour to visit its classical and religious sites.

The church’s interior, with its splendid 5th century mosaics along the upper part of the nave, retains its original form better than any other of the major basilicas of Rome.

The Sistine Chapel at the right hand side of the nave was built to house a silver reliquary with relics of the crib brought from the Holy Land in the 8th century. Two popes, Sixtus V and Pius V are buried there.

The Borghese Chapel at the left hand side of the nave honors the ancient icon of the Virgin and Child that Roman Christians have reverenced for centuries. A reproduction of the icon is a nice remembrance to bring home.

The magnificent 13th century mosaic in the apse of the basilica presents the Coronation of Mary in heaven. It’s surrounded by 5th century mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of Mary.

Website:

http://www.vatican.va/various/sm_maggiore/index_en.html

The Story of Ann and Joachim

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Joachim among the Shepherds

We celebrate the Feast of Ann and Joachim today, parents of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  The New Testament says nothing about them, but an early 2nd century document called the Gospel of James tells their story,

Ann and Joachim lived in Jerusalem, the ancient source says, where Joachim, a descendant of David and a wealthy man, provided sheep and other offerings for the temple sacrifices. The two had ties to Bethlehem nearby and Nazareth in Galilee.

They were well off but for twenty years disappointment clouded their marriage: they had no child. Even after vowing to dedicate their child to God, no child came. And so, at a time when children were treasured, they were thought poor. Descendants of David, they were blamed also for failing to continue the line the Messiah would come from.

Stung by criticism, Joachim spent more time in the mountains, brooding among the shepherds and their flocks. As her husband distanced himself from her, Ann too grew sad. God seemed far away.

In the garden one day, noticing some sparrows building a nest in a laurel tree, Ann burst into tears: “Why was I born, Lord?” she said, “birds build nests for their young and I have no child of my own. The creatures of the earth, the fish of the sea are fruitful, and I have nothing. The land has a harvest, but I have no child  in my arms.”

At that moment, an angel of the Lord came and said, “”Ann, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive a child the whole world will praise. Hurry to the Golden Gate and meet your husband there.”

At the same time, In the mountains an angel in dazzling light  spoke to Joachim, “Don’t be afraid, the Lord hears your prayers. God knows your goodness and your sorrow and will give your wife a child as he did Sara, Abraham’s wife, and Anna,  mother of Samuel. You  will have a daughter and name her Mary. Give her to God, for she will be filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb.  Go back to Jerusalem. You’ll meet your wife at the Golden Gate and your sorrow will turn into joy.”

Joachim and Ann met at the Golden Gate to the temple, the place of God’s presence. They embraced as they spoke of the angel’s promise. Returning home, Ann conceived and bore a daughter, and they called her “Mary.”

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When she was three years old, Ann brought Mary to the temple to learn the scriptures, to pray and take part in the Jewish feasts. She watched her father bring lambs to be offered in sacrifice. She grew in wisdom and grace in God’s presence.

Mary in temple Giotto

When Mary approached marriage age– then 15 or so–her parents arranged for her marriage as it was customary. They sought the high priest’s advice, tradition says, and Joseph of Nazareth was chosen as her husband. Nazareth was then their home.

The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she was to be the Mother of Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit she conceived the Child.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. He was raised in a large extended family that included his grandparents, Ann and Joachim, who cared for him as a child.

No one knows just when or where Ann and Joachim died, but Jesus must have treasured them in life and on their passage to God.

The 2nd century Protoevangelium of James repeats a fundamental theme of  the Book of Genesis: God promises Adam and Eve many children who will enjoy the blessings of the earth. God repeats the promise to an aged, childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, and again to Anna, who bemoans her childlessness to the priest Eli in the temple. In the same way, God gives a child to Ann and Joachim. Mary, their daughter, brings blessings to the nations through her son Jesus Christ, born of the Holy Spirit.

Giotto’s 14th century illustrations (above) from the Arena Chapel in Padua. helped popularize the story of the parents of Mary in Italy, Europe and the rest of the western world.

It’s an important story for grandmothers and grandfathers. Like Ann and Joachim they have a big role raising the next generation.

The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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Faith gives life and sends us on a mission. That’s what it did for Mary, Luke’s gospel says.

Mary believes the angel who announces in Nazareth the coming of Jesus, and she’s empowered by the message. So,  she sets out “in haste” for the hill country of Judea to visit Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, who also was with child. It’s not an ordinary visit. She goes “in haste” because she’s filled with a sense of mission. She hurries to Judea to announce good news to her relatives serving in the temple of God.

Faith is not a burden; it empowers us. It does not cripple us, it enables.

 “Blessed are you who believed,” Elizabeth says to Mary.

“You too, my people, are blessed,” comments St. Ambrose, “ you who have heard and who believe. Every soul that believes — that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognizes his works.

“Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one of you, to rejoice in God. According to the flesh only one woman can be the mother of Christ, but in the world of faith Christ is the fruit of all of us.”

As with Mary so with us, faith gives life and sends us on a mission..

A year ago today we blessed our Mary Garden here. We will pray there after the 11 AM Mass.

The Solemnity of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ

Today, March 25th, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, the beginning of Jesus’ life in the womb of Mary. The Angel Gabriel came to Nazareth and invited Mary to become the mother of Jesus, who would “save his people from their sins.””Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word,” Mary answered. On this day we celebrate the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. (John 1)

Today’s an important holy day that’s celebrated by all the ancient Christian churches from earliest times. It has links to other feast days. Today we celebrate Jesus conceived in Mary’s womb. Nine months from now, December 25, her pregnancy will end; we will celebrate the birth of Jesus on the feast of Christmas. 

Some ancient church calendars also saw today, March 25th. as the day Jesus was crucified. The day, then, marks the beginning and the end of Jesus’ earthly life. 

I remember a PBS special “What Darwin Never Knew” produced awhile ago by Nova. I don’t remember or understand a lot of the scientific material it contained, but its description of DNAs and embryonic development caught my attention.

According to scientists, embryos from different living beings–humans, animals, birds, fish– appear remarkably alike at an early stage of development, as if they were from the same source. Then, something triggers a different development in each species. Humans sprout arms and legs and begin human development.  Other species develop in their own way.

It’s a complex, fascinating path all living things take in their embryonic development. All creatures are on the same journey of life. All creation is on a journey to life.

“The Word was made flesh.” The Word of God became flesh in Mary’s womb. Early theologians, like St. Irenaeus, said the Word became truly human. He went through the same process of development within the womb as we do. After his birth he continued to develop “in wisdom and age and grace” as humans do. He faithfully followed the path of human development. 

The early theologians also said Jesus Christ assumed all that he would redeem. He took on himself human nature, but he also became “flesh” and took on himself the created world.  In his early embryonic journey Jesus Christ brought all creation to himself to redeem it.

“Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” Elizabeth says to Mary.(Luke 1,42) The time Jesus was in her womb was blessed. Even then, the Word of God  promised redemption to another infant in the womb, Elizabeth’s son John, who leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.  

The Feast of the Annunciation is a time to renew our respect for life, from its beginning to its end. It’s a time to remember Mary, the Mother of Jesus and her acceptance and her respect for the life in her womb. We pray for the grace she had, who said yes to bringing the Word of God into this world.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women ad blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.”