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Thursday, August 6, 2009

The May Magnificat

By Brian Kelly

May is here at last. Nature is blossoming with life. “May the sun shine warm upon your face,” as the Irish blessing goes. Easter has come and gone and there is hope in the air. This is the month of Mary, under her title, Mother of God, and she will be crowned all over the world with flowers and song and pageantry. The Church ends the month with the triumphant feast of the Queenship of Mary on the 31st. [This feast has been moved in the new calendar to August 22, which is also the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, while the feast of Our Lady’s Visitation (July 2 in the traditional calendar) has been moved to May 31.]

There are three other months dedicated to Our Lady: August is dedicated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, September to her Seven Sorrows, and October to the Holy Rosary. But May has a long-standing tradition for being all hers in many Catholic countries. Portugal, for example, has been honoring May as the month of Mary since the thirteenth century.

By the 1700s, however, the May prayers, processions, and crownings became a popular celebration with the Jesuits, who practiced special public devotions at the Gesu, their church in Rome. From there it spread to the whole Church. Pius VII promoted it and Pius IX, in 1859, granted a plenary indulgence to the practice.

Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy (Mediator Dei) characterized these devotions as included with “other exercises of piety which although not strictly belonging to the Sacred Liturgy, are nevertheless of special import and dignity, and may be considered in a certain way to be an addition to the liturgical cult: they have been approved and praised over and over again by the Apostolic See and by the Bishops.”

In honor of the feast of the Visitation, May 31, I give you The May Magnificat, a beautiful poem by Father Gerard Manley Hopkins:

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why;
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Ask of her, that mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?
Growth in every thing

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathizing
With that world of good,
Nature’s motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well, but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

John S. Stokes, Jr., writing for Mary’s Garden, gives a good explanation why May is dedicated to Mary:

“The month of May, with its profusion of blooms, was adopted by the Church in the eighteenth century as a celebration of the flowering of Mary’s maidenly spirituality. . . . With its origins in Isaiah’s prophecy of the Virgin birth of the Messiah under the figure of the Blossoming Rod or Root of Jesse, the flower symbolism of Mary was extended by the Church Fathers, and in the liturgy, by applying to her the flower figures of the Sapiential Books: Canticles, Wisdom, Proverbs, and Sirach. . . .

“In the medieval period, the rose was adopted as the flower symbol of the Virgin Birth, as expressed in Dante’s phrase, ‘The Rose wherein the Divine Word was made flesh,’ and depicted in the central rose windows of the great Gothic cathedrals — from which came the Christmas carol, ‘Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.’ Also, in the medieval period, when monasteries were the centers of horticultural and agricultural knowledge, and with the spread of the Franciscan love of nature, the actual flowers themselves, of the fields, waysides and gardens, came to be seen as symbols of Mary. . . .”

We sing of Our Lady in the beautiful hymn, O Mary We Crown Thee, that she is “the loveliest rose of the vale.” In the Canticle of Canticles, Solomon sings of the “flower of the field, the lily of the valleys, . . . the lily among thorns” (2:1,2). In the King James Bible, “flower of the field” is translated as the “rose of Sharon.” Either way, Our Lady is the “lily among thorns” and the “rose of Sharon,” indeed the “Mystical Rose,” as the Church praises her in the Litany of Loreto.

In the Middle Ages of Christendom, almost every flower had a Marian legend attached to it. The lily, for example, was called “the Madonna Lily.” In Fra Angelico’s fresco of the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel approaches Mary with a lily in his hand. Of the lily, Venerable Bede says that its “white petals [signify] her bodily purity, the golden anthers the glowing light of her soul.”

Another Marian flower is the marigold (Mary’s gold). The faithful in Europe would make garlands out of this flower, which bloomed most brilliantly in early spring, and use them to adorn Our Lady’s altars on Lady’s Day, March 25. There is a tradition that the spice rosemary, taken from the needles of the rosemary bush, received its evergreen-like aroma after Our Lady hung the clothes of the Baby Jesus on its branches during the flight into Egypt. The scientific name for the milk thistle plant is actually carduus marianus, or Mary’s thistle. The cuckoo flower is also called Our Lady’s Smock. Cardamine pratensis, as the plant is called by botanists, is believed to be the fabric used by Our Lady to sew Our Lord’s seamless garment. This garment has been preserved in the Cathedral of Trier in Germany, but it has never been examined by science. In his life of Theresa Neumann, Albert Schimberg notes that the stigmatist affirmed that the relic was indeed the seamless garment of Christ. Finally, there are rosary vines, so called because of their resemblance to the sacramental beads. In fact, the Latin word for a bouquet of roses is rosarius. The word “bead,” incidentally, originally referred to a prayer, and the use we make of this word today came from the perforated prayer balls strung along the rosary line, rather than vice versa.

Other Marian feasts to remember in May are: Our Lady of Fatima, the 13th; Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, also on the 13th; Our Lady Help of Christians and Our Lady of the Way, the 24th; Mediatrix of All Graces, the 31st; and don’t forget to honor Mary on the second Sunday of the month, Mother’s Day. Surely, she will be pleased.

Email Brian Kelly at

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