The Hymn That Helps Explain Christianity’s Devotion To The Virgin Mary
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary has played an integral role in Christian devotion since the early days of the Church, and continues to be a vital part of the daily devotions of Catholic, Orthodox, and even some denominations of Protestant Christians to this day. Once a year, during the season of Christmas, even those who typically do not engage in Marian devotion find reason to shed a spotlight on this Jewish maiden’s role in the salvation of mankind. But it is my firm belief that all Christians should have ample cause to honor her all year long, particularly during the Lenten and Easter seasons, as a vital thread in the fabric of our spiritual lives.
I find particular inspiration in the soaring poetry of the Middle Ages in honor of the Virgin and believe it to be a wonderful method of sharing the Catholic understanding of Mary’s place in the Christian life and why we pay her homage. Hearkening back to the Age of Chivalry, we can see how the culture telescoped (and indeed, colorfully kaleidoscoped) the various attributes of the Blessed Mother in light of their own understanding of the world around them, still grounded in a monarchial system. As such, she is seen as the highest of all Queens, and given royal adulation.
One hymn in particular, “Star of the Sea”, captures the freshness and vigor of the Marian devotion in the age of a united Christendom and explains quite poetically and movingly the feelings of the Catholic populace of medieval England. The lyrics are a mix between Latin, the language of the Church, and Middle English, the language of the people which had come into vogue in legal and liturgical works alike during the reign of King Henry V (1413-1422). For the purposes of this analysis, I will use the translation into modern English.
The hymn begins by hailing Mary as:
“Fairest and brightest of them all, even the star of the sea, brighter than the daylight.”
This is a testament to the belief in the Immaculate Conception. This teaching, simply explained, means that for the special calling assigned to Mary to be mother of Jesus Christ, she was preserved from the stain of Original Sin, that inheritance of susceptibility to temptation that has plagued humanity since the first fall of Adam and Eve. Cooperating with this singular grace, applied to her ahead of time through the future death of her divine son, she lived a life free from sin and full of grace.
For some, this also makes her feel inaccessible. The pedestal she stands upon is far too high for them to reach, and it frightens them. How can the rest of us possibly relate to an ideal beyond our broken human reality? But the real Mary was not beyond human reality, and her sinless state would only have made her more human, not less.
We are conditioned to believe that our sinful behavior is what makes us human, but this shouldn’t be the case. Sin, by its very definition, is a deviation from reality, for we are twisting a truth about ourselves and our natures. Sin does not strengthen us, but rather transforms us into shadows, sucking the life out of us and causing us to lose the clarity of our moral vision. The more sin is cooperated with, is given into, the more profoundly our vision, and our very nature, is blurred. It is like the Ring Wraiths in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, who lose their face and form through the corrupt power of evil, and whose very lives become un-lives, phantom mirages lost to reality.
But if Mary is “above us” in her strength to cooperate fully with the special grace bestowed on her, then she is in the way a star is above us, guiding the Christian through life like the mariners of old were guided by the stars as they charted the choppy waters of the ocean. She is light shining on water, that purity for which the ancient myths always seek out, that sacred image of what we were meant to be and what we strive after, that spark of hope when all chance of succor seems drowned in the sea of darkness. But she is brighter than the day’s light, and therefore surely can stand upon the moon, catch all the stars in her cloak, and conquer the night.
Calling her “mother and daughter both,” the hymn acknowledge Mary’s role not only as the Mother of Christ and by extension the Mother of the Church, but also her role as a Daughter of God and a Daughter of Israel, whose Covenant with the Lord comes to fruition through her. It should always be remembered that Mary was Jewish, the sweetest honey drawn from the rock of Moses, and her Judaism integrally shaped her relationship with God. As her words in Scripture reveal, she was well-versed in the history of her people, and indeed carries with her the ethos of a wanderer, a pilgrim, and one who has known the sting of suppression. However, her faith that the Lord will overturn this oppression through the coming of a Messiah is the bulwark of her life.
I am often impressed by the sheer level of courage that comes through Mary’s “Magnificat”, when this spirited teenaged Jewish peasant girl predicts that the Lord will “scatter the proud in the conceit of their souls, and exalt the humble,” reminiscent of the teenaged David’s victory over Goliath with nothing but a shepherd’s sling-shot. Her words are a ringing cry for justice, and though she is often referred to as meek and mild, she also speaks with the roar of a lioness and the wisdom of a seer. Perhaps she exemplifies Christ’s own instruction to be as “wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves
Gentleness and strength; education and humility; passion and compassion; obedience and freedom. These attributes are not at odds with one another, but in Mary find their balance and their union. She is the precursor of Joan of Arc, a maiden warrior on a spiritual plain, carrying forward the standard of Israel, just as Esther did before the king on their behalf. But now her act of acceptance to do the will of the Lord will extend the Covenant beyond her own nation to all the nations of the world. And through this child born to her in the stable straw, this young man doomed to be betrayed by his own people and put to death by foreign conquerors, the proud of the world shall know their overthrow and the humble will travel the royal road to freedom, crossing the new Red Sea of Christ’s blood.
“I call to you to smile upon me; Mistress, implore your son for me in humble penitence, that I may come to you, Mary…”
These words are those of petition made to royalty, hearkening back to the time and traditions of the Queen Mothers of Israel, the matriarchs of the royal household and mothers of the reigning kings, who served as advocates for the people to their sons. They were a bridge between the courtyard and the throne room, the common folk and the exalted ones. She would also be the one to inspect and present the gifts of the people to the king. If an apple was to be given, it would be the Queen who would shine it before presentation.
In the Christian world, many have dismissed this idea. For after all, should we be fearful to approach Christ directly, as he was approached by so many on earth? But this is failing to take into account the nature of the Communion of Saints. If we on Earth ask one another for prayers and petition, and are encouraged to pray and beseech God for blessings and favors, then would it not make all the more sense to request the same from those already in the presence of God for all eternity, already a part of that celestial sphere with union with the Divine Lover is finally realized?
Beyond all else, would it not make sense to ask the intercession of the Queen of Heaven, of she who bore the God-Man, of she who showed her infant son to the visiting Shepherds and Wise Men from the East so that they might adore Him? She is integrally linked to her Son, and indeed the relationship between Him and humanity. Growing close to Mary leads to growing close to Jesus; and, conversely, growing close to Jesus leads us to growing close to Mary. But instead of apples, she shines our ruby-red hearts to present to her Son, and in exchange, she gives us His heart to carry in our breasts.
“Lady, flower of creation, rose without thorns…”
This, once again, denotes the undefiled nature of Mary’s soul, filled with grace from the time of her conception to the day of her death. She never once said no to God, nor placed her will in opposition to the Divine will. While our understanding of right and wrong is often like fog clouding a window pane, hers was crystal clear.
That having been said, she, like Eve, could have fallen from grace. She was not a robot, but a creature of free will, like all of us, and like our first parents, who like her, were created full of grace. Mary’s stem might yet have sprouted thorns, her vine might yet have climbed around the tree of temptation. But she did not succumb to the ancient evil. While each of us cooperate with evil to greater or lesser extents over the course of our lives, she never once became a participant in it. Not once did she fall prey to the snares of the snake. Where our earthly mother Eve failed us, our heavenly mother Mary uplifts us to the gates of Paradise.
Yet even in her immaculate state, her thornless state, the thorns of others pricked her sorely. Indeed, her purity made her more susceptible to pain and the awareness of sin in the world. She was not naïve nor oblivious, but keenly present in the wilds of the world around her. She made herself ultimately vulnerable, a victim soul, and as such became singularly intertwined with the sufferings of her Son, shattered and spilt, upon Golgotha, the infamous hill of expiation, the place of the skull.
“You carried Jesus, King of Heaven, through your divine grace; above all others you win the prize…”
The early church referred to her by the Greek “Theo Tokos”, meaning “God-bearer.” As Christ would one day carry His cross, she would carry Christ within her own womb, and beneath her own heart. Just as her son’s sacred heart would be pierced through by a Roman officer’s lance, her immaculate heart would be pierced through by the sword of sorrow at having to watch the flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone skewered through and pinned against the tree of pain. She, who had given him her blood type, was sprinkled with that precious blood as she stood beneath the cross.
And yet it was through her steadfastness in suffering, indeed, in her own soul’s excruciation, that she became one with her Son’s passion, and in an incomparable way, participated in the redemption of humanity. Some have unofficially bestowed upon her the title of Co-Redemptrixt, to testify to this union of hearts, connecting mother and son even in the moment of death, ruptured together in the supreme act of sacrifice.
More deeply than any mystic, Mary experienced the closest of unions to the Divine, and as such was the most profoundly human woman ever to walk the earth. For humanity, in its purest state, is meant to reflect the image of God. We are made for God, and our souls cry out for their source. Nothing else can satiate our thirst for living water. Nothing else can quench our need to know the depths of reality. But she did so from womb to tomb and unto the throne of the heavens.
“Lady, Queen of Paradise, the chosen one, gentle virgin and mother so fruitful…”
Mary’s virginity is a constant topic of debate and controversy. It is also a cause for mockery in a world where virginity is increasingly viewed as a defect, or some sort of unattainable reality which condemns sexuality. Admittedly, some theological analysts from the past tended to equate it with something of lesser value, or lacking in spirituality. But this has never been the teaching of the Church.
It all comes down to a matter of calling. Mary had dedicated her whole self, body and soul, to the service of God in a singularly significant way. Her virginity was a marked symbol of her marriage to the Divine. It shows her to be very much aware of the stewardship over her own body which she would keep chaste according to the Law of God and the additional vows of consecration she had made. In the same way, sisters in religious orders, those called to single vocations, and those in virginal marriages, such as St. Cecelia, consecrate themselves in this way, as a vital aspect of their calling. In the over-sexualized world in which we live, this is often the subject of scorn.
However, the presence of virginal callings in the Christian life is in no way dissimilating the beauty of human sexuality, which God created and blessed for our physical continuance as a species and spiritual growth through relational development. In fact, the act of lovers has been used to illustrate the relationship between God and Man, as found in the poetry of mystics such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. It is only when it becomes debased by false use that it becomes petty, cheap, and tawdry.
Sexual intercourse, in the context of a man and woman joined together in a life-long commitment through the sacramental seal of marriage, is meant to be fulfilling, unifying, and life-giving. It is not in opposition or competition with consecrated virginity, but the two callings each have their own beauty and significance in the Christian life, just as an eagle needs two wings in order to soar. Neither one should be diminished at the expense of the other, nor indeed, could flight be possible if such was the case. And yet all of us, whatever our calling may be, have cause to turn to the Virgin Mary, to help us discover and remain true to our vocations as she did for her entire life in the face of extreme trials.
“The whole world was lost on account of Eve’s folly, until our Lord was born through your bounty…”
Eve, the mother of the human race, succumbed to the temptations of the serpent’s shiny fruit. But within Mary, the second mother of humanity, the bitten apple was cast back. It was her heart, red and warm, which the serpent sought to bite, but his fangs made no indentation. She restored womanhood to its pure state, becoming the New Eve, just as her son would restore and redeem manhood, and indeed all of humanity, as the New Adam. The folly of the old gives way to the wisdom of the new.
We find the common cause of Christian unity in proclaiming the role of the Virgin Mary during the Christmas season. The image of the young mother, cradling her newborn in the straw, brings out in us a very human sympathy. But it is also a united cry of new life, and a new battle begun. For the coming of the new Adam and the new Eve heralds our own rebirth through water and spirit. It will not be an easy birth; indeed, it will be a bloody one, and the blood shed for us will stain the mother most.
“With a final farewell departing, darkest night gave way to day with a greeting…”
Darkness is often associated with the workings of the evil one in Christian devotional. However it is also a sign of gestation and germination. When the seed is planted, it rests in the dark; it is the first step to the growing of a strong and wise tree. There is darkness in the womb, and specifically the womb of the Virgin, where the Christ Child was conceived and developed to prepare for His death.
There was darkness on that Christmas night when he was born, and darkness when he died. And of course, there was darkness in the heart of the tomb. It seems that most of the holiest moments in the Christian faith have been heralded by the falling of dark. Indeed, even in the movements of nature, darkness is a time for contemplation and rest. We sleep and restore, we dream, we make love. We delve deeper into that internal quest for our own truest nature, and our own spiritual immortality in the light of Eternity Himself.
And yet it is also vital that the night not last forever. The morning must come, the new day must dawn. The womb, as sacred, protective vessel, prepares for coming birth. Likewise, the tomb prepares for the Rise of the Son. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ and connected to the Communion of Saints, over which Christ reigns as King with Mary as His Queen Mother, we live in hope that we too will experience this Resurrection, and indeed, that every day of our lives may be a little “resurrection” through grace.
“All that is well springs from you in your virtue…”
There is a long-held tradition in Europe, and especially the British Isles, associating water with the spirit world, making a spring of water reflective of spiritual awakening and inspiration. This typically was seen as the domain of the sacred feminine, going back to Druid times, when offerings of metal weaponry and other ornate objects were offered to the local deities by casting them into lakes and rivers. This is thought to be the origin of the Arthurian figure of The Lady of the Lake, who may well be inspired by various Indo-European goddesses worshipped in the Pagan world.
With the coming of Christianity, the Virgin Mary came to assume many of these earlier attributes of feminine sacredness, and in the Middle Ages, came to be seen as the object for which the chivalric ideal was exercised. Again, in one of the earliest references to Arthur, it is said that he bore an image of her on his shield. We also see an emphasis placed upon her in the legends of Robin Hood, who holds a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and frequently “tells his beads.”
All this leads back to Mary’s association with water, via the meshing of both Pagan and Christian traditions. The Blessed Mother has often been referred to as a well-spring of virtue, from which abundant graces flow. She has been likened to the purest of water, reflecting perfectly the image of God, finding perfect union with Divine Love through perfect submission to the Divine Will. She is the epitome of all holy virgins so often associated with the wells (such as St. Winifred in Wales and St. Keyne in Cornwall), and is even more closely associated with water through the apparitions of at Lourdes and the healing spring that has drawn so many pilgrims to its waters.
“In sorrow you are the best advisor, good fortune in abundance; all who are weary find rest in you, honoured mother on high…”
Our Lady is called upon by many titles around the world, but her essential nature remains the same. She is the lady of sacred mysteries, wrapped round in a sacred string of beads. She guides us down the rose-strewn garden path, through joys, sorrows, and glories. She is as light through stained-glass, akin to the miraculous birthing of the Child through her body, casting the prisms of coral, ruby, and gold, as the graces stream forth from her hands. She is the gentle guide of the traveler, the sea-star guiding the heaven-haunted mariner.
When we are weary, she can be our strength, for her whole life was spent in a strength of spirit that rivaled the strength of king and warrior, for it was closest to that of the angels. In this age, we mark our worth by our material achievements, and yet forget that the firmest rock is built upon an unshaken spirit, and the most unshaken spirit is that which has resisted sin and embraced virtue the most. Some may scoff at this, but when all else fades away, it will be the truest reality.
That she should be our role-model, even in the hectic and confused modern world, is not a strange reality; it is all the more fitting that we should reach for peace in the midst of conflict, reach for gentleness in the center of cruelty, strive for perfection in the mire of our own sin. If we become cynical towards purity, of that reflection in a glass unscratched and un-smudged, it is because we are broken from what we were meant to be, and have even lost the last glimmer of hope that such a perfection might exist. For if there is such a perfection, it must emanate from a Source higher than ourselves, and make itself felt in the real world. But if we shy away from this, we shy away from our own sacredness and the destiny we were created to realize.
“So kindly please entreat Him, He who shed his blood for us all on the cross, to let us come by Him into the light…”
Always and forever, we are led back to the cross, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, which ever brings us to an eternal presence at Calvary, standing beside the Chosen Handmaiden in the moment of her utmost agony, as she officiates before the altar of redemption. When we receive her Son’s body and blood, soul and divinity, in the Holy Eucharist, we likewise receive her own body and blood into our beings, for as virgin mother, she alone contributed to the physical component of the savior of mankind when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her.
Yet, in the end, it is she who must hold the lifeless body which had been given life in her womb. Michelangelo’s masterpiece the Pieta captures this heart-wrenching scene with great tenderness and power. In silent sorrow, we are drawn into the mystery of loss, carved out of smoothest marble and the ripples of a mother’s garment and her dead son’s limp features. And we can imagine that the image, stark-struck into her mind on the Friday of foreboding, haunted her heart through the long Saturday of silence.
In the Christian life, we are often beset by hardship. Indeed, the very nature of Christianity is an embrace of the cross. It is a laying aside of self and a putting on of the mantel of Christ. Mary embraced the cross most intimately, and wrapped herself in the mantle most securely, and through this, she also found intimate union with the resurrection. It has long been a tradition of the Church that before appearing to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, he appeared privately to the woman who birthed Him. As such, in the Regina Coeli, we sing: “Queen of Heaven, rejoice, for He who you did merit to bear has risen, as he said! For the Lord has truly risen, Alleluia!”
Mary is the star for all seasons, for all tides of the sea. She is the is the mother’s love which has carried the carrier of the cross, upon which hung the world of our woe. She is the Woman Clothed with the Sun, and the rays that shine out crimson and orange and gold against the blue, the deep ocean blue, the serene sky blue of sleep, of twilight, of eternity. Burning Love and Cleansing Truth find their union in the Virgin, and we follow her finger which points to the eastern dawn, and our tears run into the sea, and our vision is once again restored. For the second Eve has given us a glimpse of the new Eden, and we will eat of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Life forever.
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