The Radiant Brightness of the Immaculate Virgin Mary
How right it is that in these « cold, and dark, and dreary » December days the sacred liturgy should set before our eyes the radiant brightness of the Immaculate Virgin Mary. Life without Mary is « cold, and dark, and dreary », but for one who opens the door of his heart to the Immaculate Virgin, there is warmth, and light, and gladness.
How I love the antiphon in the Divine Office of the feast: « Thy raiment is white as snow, and thy countenance as the sun ». The Church, in the freedom that comes to her from the Holy Ghost, takes the very imagery the evangelists use to describe Jesus in the glory of the Transfiguration (see Matthew 17:2 and Luke 9:29) and applies it to His Virgin Mother, the tota pulchra (all–beautiful), the full of grace.
Our Lady in Advent
Advent is the Church’s Marian season par excellence. While, in popular piety, we associate the beautiful month of May and the month of October, dedicated to the Holy Rosary, with Our Blessed Lady, in the liturgy it is during Advent that we find her most present. Blessed Paul VI wrote eloquently of this in his Apostolic Letter Marialis Cultus, dated 2 February 1974:
The faithful, living in the liturgy the spirit of Advent, by thinking about the inexpressible love with which the Virgin Mother awaited her Son, are invited to take her as a model and to prepare themselves to meet the Savior who is to come. They must be « vigilant in prayer and joyful in…praise ».
Those of you who are able to pray the Divine Office know that the first week of Advent is rich in Marian texts, all of which serve to bring our hearts into a deeper communication with Mary’s Immaculate Heart. Consider, for example, some of the antiphons that illumine the Divine Office during the first week of Advent; each one contains and communicates a Marian grace for the soul who prays it:
First Sunday of Advent at the Benedictus
Ant. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, * O Mary; fear not, thou shalt bear in thy womb the Son of God. Alleluia.
First Sunday of Advent at the Magnificat
Ant. Fear not, Mary, * for thou hast found grace with the Lord; behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son. Alleluia.
First Monday of Advent at the Benedictus
Ant. The angel of the Lord * announced unto Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Ghost. Alleluia.
First Tuesday of Advent at the Benedictus
Ant. Before they came together, * Mary was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Alleluia.
First Thursday of Advent at the Benedictus
Ant. Blessed art thou * among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
These antiphons are not mere texts to be recited dutifully. They are living words to be savoured with the palate of the soul and then held in the heart where, under the action of the Holy Ghost, they bear fruit, according to Our Lord’s own promise: « If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you. In this is my Father glorified; that you bring forth very much fruit, and become my disciples » (John 15:7–8).
Look to the Star
The feast of the Immaculate Conception, kept on December 8th when winter is descending into its longest darkness, heralds the Light and Beauty that, at Christmas, we will contemplate on the Face of the Infant Christ. God never leaves a soul in total obscurity. Even in the darkest night of faith there remains above us in the firmament the glimmer of the mariner’s faithful guiding star, the light of Mary, the Stella Maris (Star of the Sea). Thus does Saint Bernard write:
O you, whoever you are,
who feel that in the tidal wave of this world
you are nearer to being tossed about among the squalls and gales
than treading on dry land:
if you do not want to founder in the tempest,
do not avert your eyes from the brightness of this star.
When the wind of temptation blows up within you,
when you strike upon the rock of tribulation,
gaze up at this star,
call out to Mary.
Whether you are being tossed about
by the waves of pride or ambition,
or slander or jealousy,
gaze up at this star,
call out to Mary.
When rage or greed or fleshly desires
are battering the skiff of your soul,
gaze up at Mary.
When the immensity of your sins weighs you down
and you are bewildered by the loathsomeness of your conscience,
when the terrifying thought of judgment appalls you
and you begin to founder in the gulf of sadness and despair,
think of Mary.
In dangers, in hardships, in every doubt,
think of Mary, call out to Mary.
Keep her in your mouth,
keep her in your heart.
Follow the example of her life,
and you will obtain the favour of her prayer.
Following her, you will never go astray.
Asking her help, you will never despair.
Keeping her in your thoughts, you will never wander away.
With your hand in hers, you will never stumble.
With her protecting you, you will not be afraid.
With her leading you, you will never tire.
Her kindness will see you through to the end.
Then you will know by your own experience
how true it is that the Virgin’s name was Mary.
(Saint Bernard, On the Glories of the Virgin Mother, Sermon II)
Other Advent Feasts of Our Lady
The feast of the Immaculate Conception is followed by other feasts of the Mother of God, lesser in liturgical rank, but no less rich in graces for those who enter into them. On December 9th there is the feast of Saint Juan Diego of Guadalupe whom Mary called « the littlest of her sons ». Our Lady’s words to Saint Juan Diego should be inscribed in our memory for, in the lives of all of us, there are seasons and hours in which we need to remember them and repeat them:
Let nothing frighten or grieve you,
let not your heart be disturbed,
do not fear any sickness or anguish.
Am I not here, who am your Mother?
December 10th is the feast of the Holy House of Loreto. The Proper Mass of this feast supplies us with an abundance of images revealing the mystery of Mary. In the Introit of the Mass, for example we find five titles of the Mother of God:
This is a fearsome place:
it is the house of God, the gate of heaven;
it shall be named the palace of God (Gen 28:17).
V. O Lord of hosts, how I love thy dwelling-place!
For the courts of the Lord’s house, my souls faints with longing (Ps 83:2-3).
The « fearsome place » is the Mother of God herself. She is « fearsome » not because she provokes fright, but because one cannot gaze upon her with being filled with wonder and awe. Mary is the fulfillment of the sign of the burning bush that filled Moses with a terrible awe and fascination.
And the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he saw that the bush was on fire and was not burnt. And Moses said: I will go and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he went forward to see, he called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: Moses, Moses. And he answered: Here I am. And he said: Come not nigh hither, put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And he said: I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face: for he durst not look at God ». (Exodus 3:2–6)
In an antiphon of the Office for January 1st, the Church teaches us how we are to understand this passage, so wonderfully fulfilled in the mystery of Our Lady who, without losing her virginity, becomes a mother:
Ant. O Mother of God, when Moses * saw the bush unconsumed, we own that it was a figure of the preservation of thy most wonderful virginity pray for us.
Similarly, Mary is the House of God; she is the Gate of Heaven. These are titles of Our Lady familiar to all who pray the Litanies of Loreto: Domus Dei, Porta Caeli. Mary is the Palace of God; Mary is the Dwelling Place of the Word. In the verse of the Introit the Church gives free expression to her love for Mary: « O Lord of hosts, how I love thy dwelling-place! For the courts of the Lord’s house, my soul faints with longing » (Psalm 83:2-3). For the soul attuned to the liturgy this translates as: « O Lord of hosts, how I love Mary, thy Mother, thy dwelling–place! For Mary’s presence my soul faints with longing ».
In the Communion Antiphon of the same Mass, it is Our Lady herself who speaks to each one of us. What does she say?
Blessed is he who hears my voice,
who watches daily before my gates,
and waits at the threshold of my doors.
He who shall find me, shall find life,
and draw from the Lord salvation. (Proverbs 8:34-35)
Liturgy and Rosary
Concretely, how do we hear Mary’s voice? How do we watch daily before her gates and wait at the threshold of her doors? Principally by listening « with the ear of the heart » to the words of Holy Mass and of the Divine Office — for all that the Church utters in prayer proceeds from the Immaculate Heart of Mary — and, then, by praying her Rosary daily. The Rosary is, of all prayers, the one by which a soul disposes herself to hear Mary’s voice, to watch daily at her gates, to wait at the threshold of her doors. This hearing, this watching, this waiting while humbly repeating the « Hail Mary » does not go unrewarded. One who prays the Rosary in this way is « storing up treasures in heaven where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal » (Matthew 6:20).
In the same Communion Antiphon, Our Lady makes a mighty promise: « He who shall find me, shall find life and draw from the Lord salvation ». She speaks, of course, of her Divine Son, « the Way, the Truth, and the Life » (John 14:6). « If you find me », says Mary, « I will see to it that you find my Son, and in finding my Son, you will have found everything and lack nothing ».
The splendid sequence of Marian feasts in Advent continues with that of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th and, on December 18th, the ancient feast of the Expectation of the Childbearing of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a kind of immediate preparation for the Nativity of the Lord.
Advent invites us, I think, to open our homes, our hearts, our innermost secret parts to the Blessed Virgin Mary, by consecrating ourselves to her Maternal Heart. I often say to my sons here in the monastery that I have never known a monk devoted to Our Lady who has not persevered in his vocation and, sadly, never have I known a man cold towards Mary who has been able to persevere in following her Son. Love Mary, and all the rest will be given you besides.
Through the Liturgy
One cannot be attuned to the sacred liturgy of the Church without being, by the same token, deeply attuned to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. When you pray the Divine Office you are, in effect, entering into communion with the Mother of God, the Virgo Orans (the Praying Virgin) in whose Immaculate Heart all the prayer of the Church is contained and, through whose Immaculate Heart, all graces are poured into the heart of the Church. This is the luminous teaching that Pope Benedict XVI gave in Brazil on 11 May 2007: « There is no fruit of grace in the history of salvation that does not have as its necessary instrument the mediation of Our Lady ».