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Our Lady In The Sacred Liturgy

February 2, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

As many of our readers are undoubtedly aware, the liturgical feast that we celebrate on February 2 has gone by a variety of names over the ages, beginning with its Greek title in the sixth century, Hypapante (“Meeting,” i.e., the Christ Child meeting Simeon) to the popular name “Candlemas,” and in the modern Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, “the Presentation of the Lord.”
But the title for this feast that has had by far the longest history of usage, from the seventh century onward, is the name by which it is identified in the Extraordinary Form (“Usus antiquior”) of the Roman Rite, “the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Of course the titles “Presentation” and “Purification” both fittingly refer to the same Gospel event as recorded by St. Luke, wherein our Lady and St. Joseph fulfilled the traditional Jewish rite that comprised both a presentation of a firstborn son to God and a “purification” for the mother.
Yet what has unfortunately been downplayed by the change of title from the Purification of Our Lady to the Presentation is the important role of the Blessed Virgin in this event, a diminishment amplified by the deletion of the centuries-old Post-Communion prayer for this Mass that mentions the Mother of God.
This points to a larger question that transcends any one day of the year: What role does our Lady play in the sacred liturgy, and particularly the Mass? I recall years ago when in a conversation with a priest I was arguing in favor of the permanent placement of a statue of our Lady in the sanctuary, the priest was unpleasantly bewildered when I proposed that our Lady is in a sense present at every Mass.
Yet this is what Pope St. John Paul II taught in his encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia: “Mary is present, with the Church and as the Mother of the Church, at each of our celebrations of the Eucharist” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, April 17, 2003, n. 57, Vatican website translation — © Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
Similarly, in 2001 the Pontiff observed, “When we celebrate Mass, in our midst is Mary Mother of the Son of God and she introduces us into the mystery of His Offering of redemption” (Introduction of John Paul II to the Liturgy of the Mass for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin of Czestochowa, August 25, 2001, Vatican website translation — © Libreria Editrice Vaticana). This assertion is not merely a theological abstraction, but a reality with profound implications for our own personal participation in the liturgy.
In a book of anecdotes from the lives of the saints that I read as a child, there was a print depicting the Apostle St. John in priestly vestments administering Holy Communion to the Blessed Virgin, who is kneeling as she receives sacramentally from the hands of her adopted son the Son of her womb.
It really makes sense to surmise that after having taken our Lady into his home, and after our Lord had ascended into Heaven, St. John would have celebrated Mass for the Blessed Virgin. Pope John Paul pointed out that in light of Mary’s presence amid the apostles in the Upper Room, united with them in prayer as they awaited the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14), she must have participated in the Masses of the early Church.
And contemplating the same prospect that the artist of the aforementioned print proposes, that of Mary receiving Holy Communion from the hands of the apostles, the Pontiff observes, “For Mary, receiving the Eucharist must have somehow meant welcoming once more into her womb that heart which had beat in unison with hers and reliving what she had experienced at the foot of the Cross” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 56). Moreover, just as the Blessed Virgin’s role as a Mother to the early Church did not end with her Assumption into Heaven, so too, her role in the sacred liturgy has endured and continues.
There are also events in our Lady’s life prior to the institution of the Holy Eucharist that anticipate her participation and ours in the sacrament. Our Lady’s profession of faith in the reality of the Incarnation expressed by her “Fiat” to the Archangel St. Gabriel anticipates our profession of faith in the Real Presence of our Incarnate Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Her reception of the true Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Christ in her womb at the Incarnation anticipates our reception of Christ into ourselves, whole and entire, in Holy Communion.
To her cousin St. Elizabeth, Mary came as a living tabernacle, and Elizabeth responded by adoring the Real Presence of the Lord enshrined within her young cousin. And our Lady’s own first encounter with the face of Christ at His birth teaches us how we should respond to Christ when receiving Him in Holy Communion, as Pope John Paul describes:
“And is not the enraptured gaze of Mary as she contemplated the face of the newborn Christ and cradled him in her arms that unparalleled model of love which should inspire us every time we receive Eucharistic communion?” (ibid., n. 55).
The course of our Lady’s life is also inextricably bound up with the sacrificial dimension of the Mass. Her presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple solemnly initiates the offering of her Son that she will make thirty-three years later in standing on Calvary. Simeon’s prophecy of Christ’s Passion and the Blessed Virgin’s participation in it made of this oblation a daily offering, as Pope John Paul explains:
“In her daily preparation for Calvary, Mary experienced a kind of ‘anticipated Eucharist’ — one might say a ‘spiritual communion’ — of desire and of oblation, which would culminate in her union with her Son in his passion” (ibid., n. 56).
The associations of our Lady with the sacred liturgy cited thus far are all drawn from her life on Earth. As for her life now in Heaven, her participation in every Mass celebrated throughout the world until the end of time follows from the fact that in every Mass the Communion of Saints in Heaven is joined in prayer to the Church Militant on Earth.
In each and every Mass our bond with the Blessed Virgin is renewed, for in each Mass Christ’s gift of His Mother to us on Calvary is wordlessly re-presented, as Pope John Paul observes: “In the ‘memorial’ of Calvary all that Christ accomplished by his passion and his death is present. Consequently all that Christ did with regard to his Mother for our sake is also present” (ibid., n. 57). Thus at each Mass Christ silently says to us anew, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).
In addition to the Mass, there is our Lady’s association with the entire gamut of the sacred liturgy, from the liturgies of the Sacraments to the Divine Office. Her Magnificat is the crown jewel of the Office of Vespers. In Jan van Eyck’s 1432 triptych for the Church of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium — the Ghent Altarpiece — there is an upper panel depicting our Lady as Queen of Heaven intently engaged in the recitation of the Divine Office, her eyes gazing downward upon the open pages of a breviary in her hands, as with one finger she holds a second place in the book, ready to retrieve additional prayers for the office of the day.
Van Eyck here expresses artistically the reality that our Lady in Heaven prays in continual unison with the Church on Earth. Is it any wonder, then, that in the annals of the religious orders and congregations there have been at least two recorded instances of the Blessed Virgin appearing to communities of religious as they were engaged in the recitation of the Divine Office?
In several missals of Spain and Portugal from the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there are rubrics directing a priest to invoke the intercession of the Blessed Virgin before celebrating Mass. While we don’t know precisely when or how this custom arose, an incident from the life of an early archbishop of Spain’s primatial see of Toledo, St. Ildephonsus (+667), could be the reason.
It was not long after Ildephonsus had authored a treatise vigorously defending the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God that she appeared to him in a vision just as he was about to celebrate Mass, delivering into his hands a beautiful chasuble of heavenly origin for him to wear at Masses in her honor, given to him as a reward for having championed her perpetual virginity. Many an artist has depicted this event on canvas.
Significantly the invocation of our Lady in the Spanish and Portuguese missals, like Ildephonsus’ vision, takes place just before Mass and involves the vestments he is about to put on for the sacred liturgy, as described in a 1499 missal for the Spanish primatial see of Toledo:
“. . . He should kneel before his vestments; and he should say four Hail Marys. And from his innermost heart he should commend himself to the glorious Virgin Mary, that he may offer that mystery acceptably to God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that he may have her in this sacrifice as a mediatrix and helper. Then he should fortify himself with the sign of the cross, and over each vestment he should say: ‘In the name of the Father +, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen’” (Missale mixtum almae ecclesiae Toletanae, Toledo, 1499, fol. 116v).
We all need to imitate our Lady’s virtues for our fruitful participation in the Mass — to imitate her purity, so as to receive Holy Communion worthily and fruitfully, and her faith, so as to believe without seeing, and her humility, so as to adore with profound reverence. May we find her at our side at every Mass!

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