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:
My brothers, all of Scripture is indeed full of sacrosanct manifestations of God and divine apparitions. No vision, however, is more brilliant than the apparition of the Virgin to St. John. This was illuminative beyond measure, most splendid, brilliant, and glorious. Who can doubt that his apparition conceals many divine mysteries? These visions of the Virgin show her to be the most brilliant and most high Queen of the whole world, just as she, inspired by the Holy Spirit, predicted and prophesied about herself, when she said: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed: for he who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is his name” (Lk 1:48-49).
Thus Mary appears as the Queen of Heaven. Almighty God, how wonderful a truth, how wonderful an adornment. Queens are accustomed to be adorned with silver, gold and precious gems. Mary, however, is not adorned with these, but with the sun, the moon and the stars, heavenly gold, heavenly silver and celestial gems.
The treasure that St. Lawrence found in this image was a revelation of the true nobility of Mary, which he expounds by distinguishing four senses of the word “heaven”:
It is clear to everyone that light is a sign of innate nobility. Why is it that the most holy Virgin appears surrounded by such great light in heaven, if not that Scripture is declaring her to be the highest and most divine nobility of heaven. What heaven is this, however, in which this divine woman so brilliantly, so refulgently, so gloriously appears? Heaven sometimes designates the depths of the Divinity of God. Sometimes it designates this world. Sometimes it designates the Church. Sometimes it designates the paradise of the glory of God. The Virgin Mother of God appeared in the heaven of Divinity, as an exemplary archetype of the universe through the mystery of predestination and election which refers to a period preceding secular time. She appeared in the heaven of this world when she received the enjoyment of this light, being born from the line and offspring of David. She appeared in the heaven of the Church through faith and grace divinely infused, sanctified in the manner of Angels, established as the temple of God. Finally she appeared in the heaven of Paradise after dwelling in this life, after having been assumed into the heavenly Jerusalem by Christ and carried across to the ethereal dwelling place. Her glory is eternal, and she was crowned with honor and established above all the works of God.
St. Lawrence continues his exposition by assigning four levels of nobility to Mary, one pertaining to each of these senses of heaven:
But noble did Mary appear in the heaven of the divine Mind! A portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, a luminary than which nothing is more lucid, nothing more splendid. Not only was she predestined and elected to glory with the Holy Angels, the chosen of God, and elected to the first and supreme degree of both grace and glory after Christ but also to the motherhood of God. Thus she appeared in that highest heaven as a woman clothed with the sun and having in her womb the only begotten Son of God. The sun-like light of St. John’s vision is the dignity of the motherhood to which she was chosen. The sun is more splendid than the moon and indicates a superior position with respect to the excellence of grace. The crown of stars indicates the singular honor of this glory. O truly most noble predestination, an election marvelous and glorious beyond measure.
In the heaven of this world she appeared most splendid, shining in the light of nobility arising from a most pure and most noble birth, from the lineage and family of the most noble king, David. There are however other forms of nobility. There is the nobility of nature by which gold is more noble than silver, heaven than earth, Angels than men, God than Angels. There is the nobility of blood, which is a civil and political nobility arising from the riches of antiquity or illustrious and brilliant descent. There is further still a nobility arising from the goodwill, favor, and privileges granted by the highest princes. Finally there is a nobility acquired through virtue. Mary was most noble in all these modes. She was noble in nature because she is a woman who was formed by the hand of God, not from dirt, but from the bone and flesh of man. She was noble in blood because her maternal decent was of Abraham, her paternal descent of David. She was ennobled through the divine union by which she became the true and natural mother of God. She was most noble in natural virtue, in zeal, judgment, prudence, industriousness, and fortitude of spirit.
In the heaven of the Church she appeared surrounded by the most refulgent light of divine nobility. Thus God said three things about Mary through the vision of St. John, just as three things were said about her in the Gospel of St. Luke: “Hail full of grace,” “the Lord is with thee,” and “blessed art thou among women” (Lk 1:28, 42). She is above all women: thus, the moon is under her feet. The Lord is with her: thus, she is clothed with the Sun, for God is the sun of justice who dwells in inaccessible light. She is full of grace, because she is the crown of sanctity among men and Angels. But again, since grace is opposed to sin, and vice and light is opposed to darkness and eliminates the darkness of sin, this threefold symbol of light designates a threefold grace against three sins: original, mortal, and venial.
Finally, in the heaven of glory, in the empyrean or the heavenly sphere, in Paradise, Mary appeared most noble and most glorious beyond all human estimation. She was crowned with glory and honor, first among the Saints, Queen of Angels, governess of all the Blessed, Lady of heaven, Empress of the universe. With public and solemn ceremony she was declared in heaven the true Spouse of God and the Genetrix and natural Mother of Christ the King of kings. When almighty God, King of kings, Lord of lords, led Mary into Paradise, he thus revealed and declared her to be the most glorious Queen of the heavenly Paradise.
Compared to the nobility of the princes of this world, who were no strangers to St. Lawrence’s own experience, Mary possesses a true and supreme nobility. Thus he finishes his exposition of the treasury of Mary’s nobility by referring them all to the one great and all encompassing precept:
“You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Mt 4:10). True and perfect servitude to God is the highest kind of nobility. This is the highest nobility of the Angels and of this woman who is blessed of spirit.
Dr. Joseph Almeida is Professor of Classics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The above article is the ninth 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.