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A Great Sign Appeared In Heaven

Updated: May 29, 2020

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.

Christ reveals his own glory to his chosen Apostles on the sacred mountain when “he was transfigured before them, and his face shown like the sun: and his garments became white as light” (Mt 17:2). But the entire image of the sun did not shine, nor did He appear crowned with stars or lifted up upon the moon. At other times, as for example in Revelation 1: 13-16, Christ often appeared to John in glory, with his face shining like an image of the sun—one time in the midst of seven golden lampstands and amidst the stars, another time crowned with a rainbow and surrounded by many stars—but never did He appear with such glory as this image of the Blessed Virgin.

St. Lawrence does not wish to be misunderstood. Scripture is not exalting the Blessed Mother above the Father or the Son. It is rather teaching the proper relationship between her glory and the glory of God. He continues:

What is this? Is the glory of the Virgin in heaven greater than the glory of Christ? Is it greater than the glory of God? Never! However, just as it is customary among the courts of the princes and kings of this world for a queen to appear for public celebrations and solemnities, with clothes splendid and fine, with accouterment of gold and precious gems, in accordance with her status and gender, adorned more ornately and more gloriously, so to speak, than the king or the king’s first son, so also did Mary appear adorned in heaven with a greater glory than God or Christ ever appeared.

Thus, for St. Lawrence, the manifestation of the glory of the Blessed Mother is like the majestic raiment of a queen. Her adornment fittingly exceeds the king’s, but not her power or authority. The glorious manifestation of the Blessed Mother in Revelation is proper precisely insofar as she is a “portent,” a sign, indeed, a miracle in the sense which St. Lawrence develops below:

Since Christ became manifest in the world by the great glory of his signs and miracles, he wished his own Apostles and especially Peter, his own representative and the leader of the Apostles, to become manifest not by a lesser but by a greater glory in their own miracles. Thus Christ said that those who believe in him and in his works will do greater works than his. (cf. Jn 14:12) Thus he wished his mother to appear in a more wondrous glory and one particularly her own. Hence St. John says: “A great portent appeared in heaven.” A portent is a sign, i.e. a miracle (because it causes one to ad-mir-e, from the Latin mirus, which means ad-mir-able).

That she is such a portent or sign is the primary reason to praise the Virgin Mother of God because she brought forth into the world a great miracle. St. Ignatius called the Mother of God “a heavenly prodigy and most sacred sight.” Blessed Ephraem of Syria called her “the most excellent miracle in the world and the crown of saints.” St. John Chrysostom said that she truly was a great miracle. Epiphanius spoke similarly saying: “The woman clothed with the sun is an astonishing miracle.”

St. Lawrence continues his exposition of the precise and proper sense of the great glory of Mary through a remarkable typological exegesis of the Old Testament:

Marvelous was the ladder of Jacob which appeared in his dreams, whence he said: “‘Surely the Lord is in this place’ …. And he was afraid and said: ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven'” (Gen 28:16-17). Jacob thus was describing the Virgin because she is the true house of God. Marvelous was the burning bush to Moses who said: “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt” (Ex 3:3). He, however, is foreshadowing the Virgin “having the joy of a mother with the honor of virginity” (Sedulius, P.L. 4, 203). Marvelous was the Arc of the Covenant which worked so many miracles. But what is the import of the Arc except to exist as a sacred sign of the Virgin. Marvelous is the Temple of David about which he said: “Holy is thy temple, wonderful in justice” (Ps 64:5-6, Douay-Rheims). But Mary is the true Temple of God in which the entire fullness of the Divinity dwelt. Marvelous is the house of Solomon which amazed the queen of Sheba. This temple, however, stands for the true home of the true Solomon, Christ the Prince of peace. “Behold something greater than Solomon is here” (Mt 12:42). O great miracle. The Blessed Mother holds in her lap Him whom neither heaven nor the heaven of heavens could hold.”

In the final piece of his argument St. Lawrence links Christ and the Blessed Virgin under the rubric of the portent, the sign, or the miracle:

In Sacred Scripture Christ also is called a miracle. So it is said: “His name will be called wonderful,” which in Hebrew is “miraculous” (Is 9:6). Therefore, Mary cannot but be a great miracle, since she is most like to Christ as the moon is filled with the light of the sun. Just as “God made two lights” (Gen 1:16), so also in paradise he established the two great portents, i.e. signs, i.e. miracles, Christ and Mary. Hence we read of angels admiring Christ: “Who is the King of glory?” (Ps 24:8-10). “Who is it who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he that is glorious in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength?” (Is 63:1-2). Similarly we read of them admiring Mary: “Who is this that cometh from the desert, flowing with delights? (Song 8:5, Douay-Rheims). “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” (Song 6:9). Just as therefore Christ is a great miracle to the angels so therefore is Mary also a great miracle. “A great portent appeared in heaven.”

In this way, then, St. Lawrence expounds the pre-eminent manifestation of Mary’s glory in the vision of St. John. She is a great portent, a miracle who brought forth the Miracle. In the next installment we shall consider further details of St. Lawrence’s exposition of the Woman clothed with the sun.

Dr. Joseph Almeida is Professor of Classics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The above article is the eighth in a series on the sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi on the Angelic Salutation. The series first appeared in the publication, Catholics United for the Faith.


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