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Mary and the Liturgical Year

Updated: May 29, 2020

The following article is an excerpt from the recently published Marian anthology, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons, Seat of Wisdom Books, A Division of Queenship, 2008. Fifteen international Mariology experts contributed to the text. The book features a foreword by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke and has 17 chapters divided into four parts: 1. Mary in Scripture and the Early Church; 2. Marian Dogma; 3. Marian Doctrine; and 4. Marian Liturgy and Devotion.

-Asst. Ed.

Introduction: First Principles and Goals

Mary’s dignity as the Theotókos (“God-bearer” or “Mother of God” ) is the source of all her other privileges and titles. It is precisely her exalted role in the mystery of the Incarnation which accounts likewise for Mary’s unique, ongoing role in the history of salvation. Having cooperated with God’s grace from the very beginning of her life, and sharing intimately in Christ’s suffering and redemptive death, Mary now enjoys in heaven the fullness of all that the children of the Church can hope to enjoy in eternity. Indeed, in view of Mary’s relationship to the three divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity (1), she possesses a state of glory far exceeding the rest of the human race. Any Catholic treatment of Mary in reference to the liturgy of the Church must necessarily take into account Mary’s unique, complementary mediation in relation to her Son, Jesus Christ. Far from posing an obstacle to ecumenical dialogue, a clear articulation of Mary’s status in the Church and her role in the lives of individual Christians is indispensable for that movement towards unity in truth which Christ himself made the central petition of his priestly prayer (2).

This chapter explores the theological foundations of the Church’s liturgical cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her prominent place on the general Roman calendar. It first summarizes Mary’s role in the life of the Church, not only in her cooperation with the divine economy in the mystery of the Incarnation, but also in the ongoing history of salvation. It also considers Mary’s identity with the Church. The next section examines the relationship between liturgy and doctrine, clarifying the dependence of the Church’s public worship on her depositum fidei, or body of teaching. What the Church in her official prayer says about Mary and to Mary reflects her belief not only in Mary’s privileges and the nature of her mediation, but also in various other mysteries of the faith. Finally, the chapter presents feasts and observances of the Blessed Virgin Mary as they gradually appeared on the Roman calendar. The approach taken here is diachronic, beginning with the importation of Marian feasts from the East and continuing through to the third typical edition of the Roman Missal issued in 2002 by the authority of Pope John Paul II (3). As the liturgical and political influence of the Roman See spread throughout the West, a distinction eventually emerged between the local calendar of the Diocese of Rome and the general calendar of what became the Roman Rite. The chapter concludes with a consideration of Mary in the two dominant seasonal cycles of the Proper of Time, namely, Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, and Lent-Easter-Pentecost. The final Marian anthems customarily assigned to various liturgical periods set the tone of the particular season, and afford a lens through which to glimpse the Church’s understanding of Mary’s place in the rotation of liturgical seasons.

Mary in the Life of the Church

Mariologists mention three dimensions or “moments” of mediation: Mary’s own cooperation in the redemption of the human race, her distribution of the graces won by the redemption, and her complementary intercession on behalf of the Church (4). It is beyond the scope of this essay to rehearse in minute detail the threefold mode of Marian mediation which others have presented to full advantage elsewhere. This piece seeks rather to demonstrate how the Church’s authentic devotion to the Mother of God finds expression in the sacred liturgy. It therefore treats Mary’s place in the liturgical year, both in the temporal and sanctoral cycles. First, however, it briefly summarizes Mary’s collaboration in the redemption of the human race, in order the better to show how the Church regards Mary as model, intercessor, and image of the heavenly communion to which all Christians are called. Taking into account the development of the Church’s veneration of Mary over two millennia, this chapter examines Mary’s presence in the Mass and then on the calendar.

Mary and the Incarnation

In considering the figure and role of Mary in the sacred liturgy, it is necessary first to take into account the place which she occupies in the history of salvation. Various branches of theology which, since the Reformation, have come into more distinct relief, such as Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, all reflect, and in turn contribute to, a profound understanding of Mary’s figure and role in the Church’s liturgy.

To begin with, Mary played a pivotal role in the mystery of the Incarnation. As mentioned earlier, all the privileges granted to Mary by God, and the titles which the Church uses in reference to Mary, are hers in view of her role in the Incarnation. It was Mary, after all, who gave to the immortal Word of the Father his human nature. This fact alone gives rise to several important implications for the sacraments, all of which are rooted in the Incarnation, but especially for the Eucharist. Since, in the Eucharist, bread and wine are converted substantially into Christ’s body and blood, soul, and divinity, the faithful who approach Holy Communion receive Christ himself, whole and entire, under the sacred species (5). The Church’s faith in the reality of Christ’s presence is neatly summed up in two brief phrases: the eucharistic salutation Ave verum corpus natum ex Maria Virgine! and the axiom caro Christi, caro Mariae.

The Bread of Life, then, to borrow a phrase from Pope John Paul II, exudes “the taste and aroma of the Virgin Mother” (6). Communion with the eucharistic Christ, consequently, entails also communion with Mary, “the Woman of the Eucharist” (7). In the reception of the Eucharist, the faithful participate in both sacramental and ecclesial communion with Mary. Indeed, as theologian James T. O’Connor points out, “No Eucharist is ever celebrated except in union with the Blessed ever-Virgin Mary and all the saints” (8).

Mary and the History of Salvation

Mary’s role in the history of salvation is by no means limited to the Incarnation. In the infancy narratives of Matthew (9) and Luke (10), Mary conceives and bears Christ without loss of her virginity. She likewise nurtures and cares for Jesus throughout his childhood, sharing his home until he embarks on his public ministry. Luke depicts Mary as a woman of prayer and contemplative reflection. After the visit of the shepherds to the newborn Christ in the crib, for example, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (11). Again, after the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple, “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (12). Pope Benedict XVI remarks on Our Lady’s prayerful penetration of these mysteries as they unfolded and as she later contemplated them:

Mary’s memory is first of all a retention of the events in remembrance, but it is more than that: It is an interior conversation with all that has happened. Thanks to this conversation, she penetrates into the interior dimension, she sees the events in their inter-connectedness, and she learns to understand them (13).

Mary’s prayerfulness emerges likewise in the Acts of the Apostles, where she is mentioned among the earliest members of the nascent Church, committed to prayer in the cenacle between the Ascension of the Lord and the descent of the Paraclete: “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (14).

Not only does Mary provide for the material needs of Christ in his infancy. She also presents him in the Temple to his heavenly Father in a ritual act of oblation. Luke records the prophetic words addressed to Mary on this occasion by the holy man Simeon:

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel

(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)

that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (15).

In the Temple, Mary is associated liturgically with Christ’s oblation to the Father. At Calvary, Christ will associate Mary with his offering on the Cross. The infancy narratives anticipate various dimensions of the Paschal Mystery. The three days which Christ spent in the Temple in Luke 3:41, for example, parallel the three days he would spend in the tomb after his Passion and death. Similarly, Mary’s offering of the Infant Jesus to God in the Temple, as recounted in Luke 2:22-38, foreshadows ritually the offering she later would make as she stood at the foot of the Cross in John 19:25-27.

In the Fourth Gospel, Mary interacts with Christ at key moments of his messianic mission. At the inauguration of his public life, on the occasion of the marriage feast at Cana in John 2:1-12, Mary, the New Eve, tells Christ, the New Adam, that the wine for the wedding has failed. She thereby prompts Jesus to give the first of his “signs” of the new messianic age. Inaugurating a new creation in grace, Christ changes the six jars of water, symbol of the days of creation (nature), into wine (grace). Far from playing a peripheral role, Mary at Cana stands as the image of the Church, the new People of God, the Bride of Christ who himself is both Lamb and High Priest of the New Covenant. Mary pleads with Christ for those gathered at the wedding, observing that “They have no wine” (16). The result is a new wine surpassing in excellence the former supply that had failed.

Mary’s presence at the inauguration of the New Covenant is far from passive. As St. Irenaeus of Lyons (+202) points out, “the Virgin Mary untied the knot of sin bound up by the virgin Eve” (17). Just as the first woman, Eve, tempted the first man, Adam, to disobey the Lord and grasp at equality with God (18), so the second Eve and new Woman, Mary, urges the second Adam, Christ the new Man, to provide the new wine of divine grace upon a situation in need of divine mercy. Without in any way detracting from Christ’s role as the Messiah and Mediator of the New Covenant, Mary is closely associated with his mission. Mary’s message to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (19), are the last words of Mary recorded in Scripture. They complement and advance his authoritative role as the Messiah.

Just as she was present and active at the inauguration of Christ’s mission as Messiah, so Mary participated in the climax of Christ’s redemptive suffering and death on the Cross. Mary accompanied Christ to Calvary, where she shared his sufferings. John records that, as Christ was hanging in crucifixion, Mary stood at the foot of the Cross. Mary’s position, which she shared with the wife of Clopas, the Magdalene, and the beloved disciple, again reflects her solidarity with Jesus and his redemptive mission. This solidarity stands in glaring contrast to the behavior of those followers who had denied or disowned Jesus, and who had abandoned him to his Passion and death. On Calvary, Mary shares in the sufferings of her Son. She stands in union with his self-offering to the Father.

From the Cross, Christ entrusts the beloved disciple to the maternal care of Mary:

“Woman, behold, your son!” and in turn entrusts his Mother to the beloved disciple: “Behold, your mother!” In the act of entrusting the beloved disciple to Mary, Christ gives her to every faithful and beloved disciple. Hence the Church’s recognition of Mary’s maternal relationship to Christ’s faithful followers.

As one of the Twelve, John represents not only the disciples of Christ in general, but also in particular those entrusted with the task of coordinating and celebrating the Paschal Mystery in the sacred liturgy. In the Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priests, The Congregation for the Clergy draws out for each priest the implications of his identity with John and his rapport with the Blessed Virgin:

Like John at the foot of the Cross, every priest has been entrusted, in a special way, with Mary as Mother (cf. Jn 19:26-27).

Priests, who are among the favored disciples of Jesus, crucified and risen, should welcome Mary as their own Mother in their own life, bestowing her with constant attention and prayer. The Blessed Virgin then becomes the Mother who leads them to Christ, who makes them sincerely love the Church, who intercedes for them and who guides them toward the Kingdom of heaven.

Every priest knows that Mary, as Mother, is the most distinguished modeler of his priesthood, since it is she who moulds the priestly soul, protects it from dangers, from routine and discouragement, and maternally safeguards it, so he may grow in wisdom, age and grace, before God and men (cf. Lk 2:40) (20).

In the celebration of the sacred liturgy, the work of our salvation continues to be accomplished (21). Mary therefore exercises her role as Mother of Christ’s beloved disciples even within the liturgy, as the Church invokes her aid and aspires to join Mary in the glory of heaven singing the everlasting praises of God.


Mary and the Church

Among the earliest Christian insights into the figure of Mary is her identity with the People of God. More recently, Jesuit theologian and Scripture scholar Ignace de la Potterie has demonstrated in remarkably clear detail how Mary stands both as a figure of Israel or Sion, and as the archetype of the Church (22). Mary bridges the Old and the New Covenants (23). Her canticle of praise, known in the West by its Latin incipit Magnificat and chanted every evening at Vespers, resonates the exaltation of Israel/the Church by divine grace. Likewise, the Woman of Revelation 12, although understood originally as a personification of Ecclesia or the Church, came to be identified with Mary. Consequently, the figure of this Woman would be incorporated into readings and antiphons for various Marian feasts and occasions.

As a sign of the Church, persecuted yet innocent, driven into exile yet protected and raised on high by God, Mary enjoys a singular position among the daughters of Eve. Her earthly life, marked not only by the joy springing from her intimacy with Christ, but also by her share in the sorrow and pain of his Passion and death, now has given way to the glory of heavenly queenship. This queenship does not suggest, even remotely, any parity with God, but depends utterly on the divine pleasure and indeed proclaims in eternity the supreme majesty of the Godhead. Both as model and Mother of the Church, Mary offers her Son and herself to the eternal Father. Inasmuch as Mary personifies the Church at prayer, she necessarily participates in the heavenly liturgy of which the earthly parallel constitutes but a pale reflection (24).

This identification of the Church with Mary, like Mary’s role in salvation history, sets before the priest an image to inspire him in the faithful celebration of the sacred mysteries, so that all who participate may grow in holiness and enjoy even on earth some foretaste of heavenly glory:

Masterpiece of the priestly Sacrifice of Christ, the Blessed Virgin represents the Church in the purest way, “with neither stain nor blemish,” completely “holy and immaculate” (Eph 5:27). This contemplation of the Blessed Virgin places before the priest the ideal to which the ministry in his community should lead, so that this be a “wholly glorious Church” (ibid.) through the priestly gift of his very life (25).

The Relationship between Liturgy and Doctrine

At this point, let us consider briefly the nature of liturgy, so that we may more fully grasp Mary’s place within this “source and summit” (26) of the Church’s life and mission. In the prayers, readings, and chants of sacred liturgy, the Church expresses her belief in Mary’s privileges and prerogatives, as well as her response to the gifts of grace. Mary’s divine maternity, her freedom from all stain of sin, her perpetual virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ, her complete union with God’s will, her participation in the sufferings of her Son, and her mediation on behalf of the human race all find expression in the Church’s official prayer. The liturgy not only reflects and affirms faith in these mysteries; it integrates them into the annual, weekly, and even daily rounds of the Church’s worship.

The Nature of the Sacred Liturgy: the Prayer of Christ and of the Church

The sacred liturgy is the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ the High Priest and sole Mediator of the New Covenant (27). This priestly office is carried out by the whole Christ, that is, by the entire Mystical Body of Christ, Head and members together:

The priestly life begun with the supplication and sacrifice of his mortal Body should continue without intermission down the ages in his Mystical Body which is the Church. … In obedience, therefore, to her Founder’s behest, the Church prolongs the priestly mission of Jesus Christ, mainly by means of the sacred liturgy (28).

This definition of the sacred liturgy resonates in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium in fact echoes the very words of Pius XII:

The liturgy, then, is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. It involves the presentation of man’s sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs. In it full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members (29).

Jesus Christ wills that his Church participate intimately in the exercise of his high-priestly office. According to Sacrosanctum Concilium, “Christ, indeed, always associates the Church with himself in this great work in which God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is his beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through him offers worship to the eternal Father” (30). When the Church prays, therefore, it is Christ praying in unison with his Body and Bride the Church. “From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (31).

It is Christ who associates with himself all the members of his Mystical Body, his

pilgrim people, his Church in this privileged public prayer, which constitutes “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows” (32). Foremost among the members of Christ’s Mystical Body ranks the Blessed Virgin Mary. At each stage of his saving mission, Christ associated Mary with himself and with the work of redemption. Without in any way diminishing Christ’s role as Redeemer, Mary played, and continues to play, a unique role in the economy of salvation. Hence her place is of high honor in the Church’s liturgical prayer.

The Role of Liturgy in the Development of Doctrine

At this point it is useful to recall the connection between the Church’s deposit of faith and her liturgical worship. In the first papal encyclical on the sacred liturgy, Mediator Dei, Pius XII clarified this relationship by correcting a popular misreading of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-post 455). Prosper’s dictum Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (let the rule for prayer determine the rule of belief) (33) had been exposed to potential misinterpretation by the more pithy axiom lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer, the rule of belief), which in some circles had been taken to suggest that the prayer of the Church determines the Church’s faith. Pius XII confronts this fallacy in unambiguous terms:

We refer to the error and fallacious reasoning of those who have claimed that the sacred liturgy is a kind of proving-ground for the truths to be held of faith, meaning by this that the Church is obliged to declare such a doctrine sound when it is found to have produced fruits of piety and sanctity through the sacred rites of liturgy, and to reject it otherwise. Hence the epigram: “Lex orandi, lex credendi“—the law for prayer is the law for faith.