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Mary & The Advent Liturgy

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. The book is now available from Queenship Publications. To obtain a copy, visit our store at

-Asst. Ed.

The Advent season draws attention to the comings of Christ. The liturgy recalls his first coming in the humility of the Incarnation, so that the Church might prepare worthily and well for his second coming in glory as Judge of the living and the dead. Hence the Church looks to Mary, who welcomed him in blessed hope. The character of the first part of Advent is distinctly eschatological. The liturgy, in its prayers, readings, and antiphons, anticipates Christ’s coming as Judge at the Last Day. Both the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and, in the Americas, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, remind us of Mary’s unique role in the history of salvation and the life of the Church. Like the dawn before the sunrise, Mary prepares the world and the Church for the coming of Christ. Moreover, during the immediate preparation for the Nativity of the Lord, from December 17-24, Mary emerges in even more distinct relief through the scriptural lessons and especially in the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer. Here, as in the Roman Canon, Mary appears in tandem with that other great figure of Advent, John the Baptist and Precursor of the Lord:

The Virgin Mother bore him in her womb with love beyond all telling.

John the Baptist was his herald and made him known when at last he came (100).

A few notes are in order regarding the structure of Advent and its dynamics over the history of its development in the Roman Rite. Although Rome adopted a six-week Advent in the second half of the sixth century, St. Gregory I reduced it to four weeks. On the Roman calendar until 1970, the Ember days, falling after the third Sunday of Advent, recalled the Blessed Virgin in a particularly striking way. On Ember Wednesday of Advent, the text of the first reading featured the prophecy of Isaiah 7:10-15 Ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium, et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel (“Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (101). Then followed the Lucan account of the annunciation of Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin: Missus est angelus (Lk 1:26-38) (102). On Ember Friday in Advent, the first reading was drawn from Isaiah 11:1-5, Egredietur flos de radice Iesse (A flower shall come forth from the root of Jesse) (103). The Marian significance of this passage is obvious to all admirers of the Jesse tree, depicted in the Middle Ages often through the medium of stained-glass windows or elaborate illustrations in manuscript prayer books and bibles. The Gospel pericope of the day recounted the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-47) (104).

The Ember days called the faithful to fast and pray in anticipation of the ordinations that would take place on that Saturday. The accounts of Mary’s faithful reception of the Word incarnate (Annunciation), and her generosity in bringing that Word to others (Visitation), would have exhorted the ordinands to embrace with worthy joy their respective vocations.

The season of Advent shares the quiet and prayerful expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Through the “O Antiphons,” recited during Vespers in conjunction with the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat), and used as well at Mass for the Gospel acclamation of the day, the liturgy invokes Christ by various messianic and divine titles (Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Sun, King of Nations, Emmanuel). A custom originating in the early Middle Ages and transmitted through religious orders and congregations assigned an additional O Antiphon, O Virgo virginum (“O Virgin of virgins) to salute Mary (105). This title, too, implies the eschatological coming of Christ who makes fruitful the barren and who crowns with everlasting splendor the pure of heart.

The Alma Redemptoris mater serves as the Marian anthem customarily chanted after Compline (or solemn Vespers) from the First Sunday of Advent until the end of the Christmas season (February 2, Candlemas Day):

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli

porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,

surgere qui curat, populo; tu, quae genuisti,

natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem,

Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore

sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere (106).

The anthem invokes Our Lady not only as Mother of the Redeemer, but also as pervia caeli porta (Open Gate of Heaven) and stella maris (Star of the Sea). Going “to Jesus through Mary,” the Church merely follows the example of Christ himself, who chose to come to us through his Mother Mary (107). The title Star of the Sea plays on the meaning of the Hebrew name Miriam as interpreted by Western theologians. As the star of the sea, Mary guides the faithful over the waves and through the storms of this life to the final port of heaven. The virginal birth of Christ as the fruit of Mary’s obedience causes wonderment in nature itself, for the creature will give birth to the creative Word through whom all things came into being. Mary is both Virgin and Mother. Indeed the anthem stresses the perpetual virginity of Mary, virgo prius ac posterius (“virgin beforehand and afterwards), echoing St. Jerome’s defense of this immemorial doctrine.

Finally, the anthem denotes the power of Mary’s intercession and assistance inasmuch as it petitions Mary to have pity on sinners. In the litanies approved for use in both the sacred liturgy and personal devotions, the invocation Miserere nobis is reserved for the Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The anthem reflects the great confidence which the Church places in Mary’s mediation for a people fallen yet striving to rise from their sinful condition.

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