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In a meditation I serendipitously encountered recently on the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the author made the following exclamation of praise: “O Mary! Blessed name that I love and venerate from the depths of my being!” (Magnificat vol. 5, no. 7, 104). This was striking because particular attention of any kind to the proper name of Mary is unusual in spiritual and theological writings. Not so, however, in St. Lawrence. In his third sermon on the Angelic Greeting, the name, Mary, is precisely the topic which engages the saint’s dexterous reflections.

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In the final two sermons of St. Lawrence’s exposition of St. John’s apocalyptic vision of the Virgin Mary, he turns his attention to her sorrows and her joys. The measure of Mary’s joy is the immensity of her willing yet heartrending suffering in the Passion of Christ. St. Lawrence focuses on this text from Revelation: “She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery” (12:2). As the imagery of this passage is in sharp juxtaposition with the dogma of the inviolate birth, one can see in St. Lawrence’s work, not only inspiring exposition, but the power of exegetical method illuminated by magisterial teaching. Mary’s travail is in the passion of Christ, her joy in his resurrection.

St. Lawrence begins by presenting the difficulty of the text: […]

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In continuing his series of sermons on St. John’s vision of the woman clothed with the sun, St. Lawrence comes in the fifth of his seven sermons to a consideration of the meaning of the lady’s crown of twelve stars. His reflections amount to nothing less than a commentary on the great Glorious mystery of the Rosary, the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary as queen of heaven and earth. In the following excerpts one begins to see most clearly that there exists in St. Lawrence’s Marian work a unity between speculative theology and tender devotion to the Mother of God. Indeed, it become clear that the foundation point and principle of his Marian scholarship is the divine motherhood itself. (1)

With scholarly precision, summarizing work of his past sermons and developing the present line of inquiry, St. Lawrence announces the coronation as his current topic: “We saw this heavenly woman, who was a great miracle while in this world, clothed with the sun and placed above the moon in heaven. Now we must see the meaning of the coronation and adornment with a diadem of stars. On her head, St. John says, was a crown of twelve stars.” […]

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It is clear enough now that the sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi on the Marian vision of St. John are intensely Biblical. St. Lawrence was following the principle of the Capuchin reform that all preaching return to the simple word of God. (1) With all but absolute attention to Scripture, the Marian sermons exhibit both doctrinal exegesis and St. Lawrence’s own more personal meditative reflections. In accordance with the principle of Biblical interpretation authoritatively expounded later by Pope St. Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus, (2) St. Lawrence applies Catholic doctrine to the difficult passage in Revelation which presents the woman clothed with the sun. He also freely communicates to the faithful an account of his own more prayerful meditations upon this passage, which more often than not flourish into an exuberant celebration of the special place of the Blessed Mother in God’s plan of salvation. Because St. Lawrence himself is a declared doctor of the Church, both his doctrinal exegesis and his meditative reflections possesses a certain compelling authority, even when they go beyond what is, strictly speaking, minimum magisterial teachings on Mary. In the following excerpts from the third sermon in the series on St. John’s vision, St. Lawrence begins from the doctrinal foundation of Mary’s divine motherhood and develops the wider notion of the Blessed Mother as the divine treasury of Heaven and the recourse of sinners.

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St. Lawrence was a man of prodigious activity. He constantly obeyed the call of his Capuchin superiors for service to his own order, to the Church, and to the world. His work brought him into contact with the most noble persons of his era from princes of the Church to princes of state. Despite the demands of his duties, he never abandoned the call of the pulpit. Above all else, preaching was St. Lawrence’s real lifework. He preached everywhere and on all occasions, from prestigious pulpits in Europe to local parish churches. He prepared for each sermon in the same laborious way no matter how many times he had previously spoken on a topic. He would retire in seclusion before a picture of the Blessed Virgin, meditate on Scripture, jot down insights, and structure a written text around these thoughts. Eyewitnesses have reported that his love of God and hatred for sin were palpable in his preaching. In the following excerpt from the same series of Lenten reflections presented in the previous two installments, St. Lawrence considers how St. John’s vision of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars establishes the nobility of Mary as something extraordinarily greater than the nobility of the princes of this world.

In a characteristic spirit of fraternal love St. Lawrence presents St. John’s text to his audience as a place of hidden spiritual treasures: […]

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All of his life St. Lawrence’s preaching exhibited a penetrating use of Scripture, a point which comes to light notably in his sermons on Mary. In this excerpt he expounds the implications of calling the Blessed Virgin a heavenly portent.

Amazed by the glory of the image of the Blessed Virgin as a woman clothed with the sun, St. Lawrence notes the preeminence of the manifestation of her glory in the book of Revelation:

Often we read that God himself appeared to the Saints and to worthy Patriarchs and Prophets in order to manifest his glory, but he never appeared in such great majesty and glory as in the image of the Blessed Virgin in Revelation. He appeared to Abraham in heaven in the middle of the stars. He appeared to Jacob on the top of the heavenly ladder where angels were ascending and descending. (Gen 28:12-13). He appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Ex 3:2). He appeared to Isaiah upon an exalted and elevated seat with seraphim singing the divine “Sanctus” (Is 6:1-3). Nowhere, however, do we read of Him clothed with the sun. […]

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St. Lawrence of Brindisi has written about the Most Holy Mother of God as profoundly as any of the great doctors and saints of the Church. Most of these reflections were written as sermons, among which are a series on the Marian visions of St. John in the Book of Revelation. St. Lawrence preached these sermons on the Saturdays of Lent in Naples in the year 1605. The initial sermon in this series takes up what one could call the first Marian apparitions. After her assumption into heaven, our Blessed Lady appeared frequently to her beloved adopted son, and St. John chose to recount one of the most magnificent of these apparitions in his description of the “woman clothed with the sun” (Rev 12:1).

In His divine plan for the salvation of the human race, our Lord wished for St. John to remain on this earth longer than any of the other Apostles for the good of the Church. The Blessed Savior did not, however, leave his beloved disciple without consolation, and one of the most precious of these favors were the visitations of His Holy Mother. St. Lawrence develops this idea in the following excerpt: […]

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One of the remarkable things about the Marian sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi is that they are at once new and old. To be sure, the reflections of the Capuchin saint sometimes bear the marks of his own private mysticism, but these are always filtered through and tempered by the bona fide tradition of the living Church. In the eighth of his sermons upon the Hail Mary, St. Lawrence reflects upon the meaning of the words: “Blessed are you among women.” He shows Mary to be unique in her creation, in her nature as woman, and in her motherhood. In doing so he calls upon Old Testament typology, the Fathers of the Church, and even fifth century Christian poetry.

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St. Lawrence’s reflections on the angelic salutation—”Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you”—extends over ten sermons. In the seventh of these he preaches in particular upon the angel’s claim that God is with Mary, a theme which he introduces as follows:

By the words of his greeting the angel signaled Mary’s greatness. If we should speak about a king or an emperor who deals with business in his own chamber with his own assistant, counselor, and chief general, we would not say that the king is with the assistant but that the assistant is with the king. The pope is not with the cardinal or the bishop, but the bishop with the pope. The master is not with the servant, but the servant with the master. However, we do say that the king is with the queen or with his mother or with his most beloved and only daughter.

Thus St. Lawrence notes that “the angel of the Lord … said, ‘the Lord is with you’ just as one would say that the king is with the queen, the husband with the most beloved bride, the son with his dear mother. O marvelous, O divine consortium! Who will be able to grasp the meaning of these words: the most high and almighty God with Mary!”
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In these following excerpts from his fifth sermon on the angelic salutation, St. Lawrence continues his exposition of the archangel’s momentous greeting by explaining the special meaning of Mary’s plenitude: he expounds how Mary is as the moon to Christ who is the sun. In establishing this comparison, he looks first to Biblical imagery and then to the unified interpretative tradition of both the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church.

Sacred Scriptures contain many images of plenitude, and, at the hands of St. Lawrence, these become a typology of Mary’s own singular fulness:

The plenitude of Mary’s grace is a very vast ocean. The great sea in the temple of Solomon was full of water (cf. 1 Kings 7:13-14, 23-24). We can with merit liken this sea to the Virgin Mary. “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full” (Eccles 1:7). The sea designates the multiple abundance of the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit. As our Savior said in St. John’s Gospel: “He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive” (Jn 7:38-39). Therefore all streams run to the sea; thus the full abundance and plenitude of graces have flowed into the Virgin Mother of God. Behold the vessel full of manna in the sanctuary of the Lord, the new vessel of Elisha full of salt for purifying the waters of Jericho. Behold the tabernacle of the Lord full of the glory of God, as we read in Exodus (16:32-33), and behold the temple of Solomon full of the majesty of God on the day of its dedication. We read also in Isaiah (6:1-13) that the train of the Lord’s robe, i.e. the glory of the Lord, filled the temple and that the whole earth was full of His glory. In Ezekiel (43:4-5) also it is said that the house of the Lord is full of clouds and that his atrium is full of the splendor of His glory. These sacred mysteries designate nothing else but the Virgin as the divine plenitude; she is the most sacred living temple of the Divinity in whom the whole plenitude of deity dwelt bodily (cf. Col 2:9).

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The Marian work of St. Lawrence is not only valuable, but timely. I am referring, of course, to the recent Apostolic Letter of John Paul II, The Rosary of the Virgin Mary, in which the supreme Pontiff calls upon theologians to probe, just as St. Lawrence did, the depths of the meaning of Mary’s role in the life of Christ and the Church (§ 43). I do not know whether the Pope had the works of St. Lawrence in mind in this call to Marian studies, but there are many points of similarity between the thoughts of this saintly doctor and the mind of the Pontiff as expressed in the Apostolic Letter. One finds an especially remarkable correspondence in the first of St. Lawrence’s ten sermons on the “Angelic Salutation,” i.e. on the “Hail Mary.” In his letter the Holy Father says that the Rosary “has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety” (§1). St. Lawrence comes to a very similar position, not, however, about the whole Rosary, but about its most “substantial element” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §33), namely, the “Hail Mary.” He holds that the words, “hail, full of grace,” contain in principle the whole of the Gospel.

In his reflections on the angel’s greeting, St. Lawrence notes the uniqueness of the words, “Hail full of grace.” This greeting indicates the birth into the world of a new and profound kind of joy, experienced mutually by the angel and the Blessed Virgin and, indeed, to be experienced henceforth, perpetually, by the entire Church of God. As we shall see, this is the joy of that special “good news” which is the Gospel.
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