Throughout the history of the Church, many believers have expressed surprise that the four canonical Gospels make no mention of the Risen Lord’s appearance to His holy Mother. Some might reply that there would be no need to state the obvious: If He “appeared to five hundred brethren at once,” as St. Paul says (1 Cor 15:6), would He bypass His own dear Mother? Actually, there is early evidence outside the biblical record for such an apparition, coming from Coptic Christianity. Writing in the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem cites what he refers to as “a so-called Discourse on Mary Theotokos,” which has Mary relating her experience of her Risen Son to the Apostles.
However, logic also impels us to conclude that Our Lady, whom the Scriptures note as present not only at Our Lord’s birth but also throughout His public ministry, even unto the Cross, would share in the joy of her Son’s glorious Resurrection. St. Luke, in the second volume of his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, makes a point of informing us that the apostolic community was united in prayer with Mary as they awaited the Pentecost Gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14)..
In 1986, St. John Paul II – the great Marian Pope – offered to the Church the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, undoubtedly in preparation for the 1987 Marian Year. That volume is a collection of forty-six Mass texts in honor of Our Lady, coming from the Middle Ages and from various religious orders and congregations, like the Carmelites, Passionists, Salesians, Servites and Mercedarians. It took the Americans to 1992 for the volume to make its debut in English. I must say that this work was one of the better liturgical accomplishments after Vatican II because one of its principal aims was to root Marian devotion in the broader liturgical cycle; thus, four of the Mass formularies celebrate Mary in view of the Lord’s paschal victory.
The first is simply entitled “Blessed Virgin Mary and the Resurrection,” which also found its way into the revised Missale Romanum of 2002. The introit or entrance antiphon of that Mass hails Mary as the “Mother of Light,” while the preface observes that she who conceived the Lord in faith likewise in faith awaited His Resurrection. “Holy Mary – Fountain of Light and Life” is the second and its celebrates Mary’s maternal role in the Church, reflecting that “the mysteries accomplished in the Blessed Virgin should be accomplished in sign through the sacraments of the Church” and sees in the Virgin Mother’s “fruitful virginity” a “type” of the baptismal font of the Church, also a virginal mother. The third honors Mary as “Our Lady of the Cenacle” and has its origins in Luke’s recounting in Acts of the Blessed Mother’s most welcome presence among the Apostles in the Upper Room, which had been the site of the Last Supper, as well as two of the Risen Christ’s appearances to the Apostles. In this Mass, we behold Mary as a Mother nourishing the infant Church as a model of prayer, obedience and faith. The fourth Mass of the Easter cycle is that of “The Blessed Virgin Mary – Queen of the Apostles,” a title dear to the Daughters of St. Paul, as it stresses Mary’s intercession on behalf of the Apostles as they prepared to engage in their mission of evangelization and her intercession on our behalf as we also fulfill our duty as contemporary evangelists.
And now, we can move on to ask why May is dedicated to Our Lady. Not surprisingly, the great Cardinal Newman handled that question admirably. First, he places the observance in the context of nature, at least for this hemisphere:
The first reason is because it is the time when the earth bursts forth into its fresh foliage and its green grass after the stern frost and snow of winter, and the raw atmosphere and the wild wind and rain of the early spring. It is because the blossoms are upon the trees and the flowers are in the gardens. It is because the days have got long, and the sun rises early and sets late. For such gladness and joyousness of external Nature is a fit attendant on our devotion to her who is the Mystical Rose and the House of Gold.
And then he offers a more “liturgical” rationale:
May. . . belongs to the Easter season, which lasts fifty days, and in that season the whole of May commonly falls, and the first half always. The great Feast of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven is always in May, except once or twice in forty years. Pentecost, called also Whit-Sunday, the Feast of the Holy Ghost, is commonly in May, and the Feasts of the Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi are in May not unfrequently. May, therefore, is the time in which there are such frequent Alleluias, because Christ has risen from the grave, Christ has ascended on high, and God the Holy Ghost has come down to take His place.
Here then we have a reason why May is dedicated to the Blessed Mary. She is the first of creatures, the most acceptable child of God, the dearest and nearest to Him. It is fitting then that this month should be hers, in which we especially glory and rejoice in His great Providence to us, in our redemption and sanctification in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
You should have noticed that Newman adverts to one of the titles accorded Mary in her litany, “Mystical Rose.” Let’s give some thought to that.
I suspect that everyone considers the rose the “queen of flowers.” In almost every culture, the rose has held quasi-mystical value. In the Greco-Roman world, the rose symbolized beauty, love and the season of spring; it also denoted the fragility of beauty and hinted at death, so that the pagan Roman feast of rosalia was a celebration of the dead. In Christian iconography, the rose came to stand for an eternal paradise, as well as being the symbol for martyrs. With good reason, then, the rose has been considered the quintessential botanical representation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
What Advent is complete without singing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”? The rose spoken of there is Christ Himself. However, if Christ has a human nature, He received it from His holy Mother, who must likewise be a rose since like always comes from like. Surely, that was Dante’s understanding as we hear Beatrice counsel Dante in the Paradiso: “Why are you so enamored of my face that you do not turn your gaze to the beautiful garden which blossoms under the radiance of Christ? There is the rose in which the Divine Word became flesh; here are the lilies whose perfume guides you in the right ways” (23:71-75). And so, we sing:
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
amid the cold of winter,
when half-spent was the night.
Isaiah ‘twas foretold it,
the Rose I have in mind;
with Mary we behold it,
the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright,
she bore to us a Savior,
when half-spent was the night.
According to the anonymous medieval author of those verses, Jesus the Rose has come forth from that “tender stem” who is Mary. The hymnographer proceeds to teach us that we see the Son best through the lens provided by the kindly Mother, who brings us the Savior to demonstrate the depths of divine love. And this provides us with yet another Marian title – Mother of Fair Love. The rose once more betokens love.
In splendid Gothic cathedrals – with Notre Dame of Paris among the finest examples – our attention is drawn to the magnificent rose windows, with the central one depicting Mary presenting the Infant to the world, as she has ever done since that midnight in Bethlehem. Likewise, in the Middle Ages under the influence of courtly manners and culture, the rose garden came to be regarded as the privileged place to encounter one’s beloved lady. Spiritualizing that notion, especially in light of the Song of Songs, led to the rose being viewed as the mystical union between the soul and Christ, between Christ and the Church, with Mary as the primordial example of such a blessed relationship.
Roses also began to represent those prayers, especially the Ave’s offered to Mary in that meditative prayer which eventually was called a “rosary,” that is, a collection of roses. Some rosary beads are actually made in the form of roses to reinforce the meaning.
Shakespeare would opine in Romeo and Juliet: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Pope Benedict XVI asserts: “Indeed, she [Mary] is the most beautiful flower to have unfolded since the Creation, the ‘rose’ that appeared in the fullness of time when God, by sending His Son, gave the world a new springtime.” And so, we would have to part company with the Bard of Avon on that one, for the sweetest-smelling rose has the name – of Mary.
And so, as we move through Paschaltide, looking forward to the Risen Lord’s glorious Ascension and His sending of the Holy Spirit, we do so like the Infant and Apostolic Church – in the company of Mary, His Mother and ours.
Holy Mary, Fountain of Life and Light, pray for us.
Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us.
Queen of the Apostles, pray for us.
Mystical Rose, pray for us.
(Editor’s note: This essay was first given, in slightly different form, as homily on May 15, 2019 at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.)
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