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Mary, December 11, 1971

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Mary

by Teodoro M. Locsin

 

AS DEW IN APRIL

(Anonymous – 15th Century)

I sing of a maiden

That is makeless;

King of all kings

     To her son she ches.

    He cameth all so still

                    There his mother was

As dew in April

                         That falleth on the grass.

      He cameth all so still

                       To his mother’s bower,

           As dew in April

                            That falleth on the flower.

        He cameth all so still

                     There his mother lay,

As dew in April

                          That falleth on the spray.

      Mother and maiden

                        Was never none but she;

          Well may such a lady

                  Godde’s mother be.

 

December 11, 1971—WHAT kind of a woman was she?

            A woman of humility, we are told, receiving the angel Gabriel’s salutation thus: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

            Of an exalted spirit: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God, my Savior.”

            She knew her true station, she was the Mother of God, yet she kept the knowledge to herself, not boasting of her fortune to other women: “She kept all these sayings and pondered them in her heart.”

            She brought up the child Jesus as a good mother would her child, attending to His needs throughout the years of His ministry without question or complaint, and followed Him weeping silently to His cross.

(“makeless” – matchless. “ches” – chose.)

She must have looked, it is argued, like her Son, for Christ had no father on earth, “therefore could only have derived His human lineaments form His mother.” The resemblance between mother and Son must have been perfect and complete.

“For had He been…not born of woman,” wrote Augustine, explaining the despair that could have then seized the sex, “the women might have despaired of themselves, recollecting the first offense, the first man having been deceived by a woman. Therefore we are to suppose that, for the exaltation of the male sex, Christ appeared on earth as a man; and, for the consolation of womankind, He was born of a woman only; as if it had been said, ‘from henceforth no creatures shall be base before God, unless perverted by depravity.’”

The faintly contemptuous attitude toward women implied in this passage from a former connoisseur of the sex stemmed from the relatively low regard in which men generally held their mothers and sisters in antiquity. With Christianity came, slowly, the elevation of woman to a parity with man, thanks to the adoration of Mary.

Yet, for some four hundred years there was no cult of Mary. “Neither in the early scripture nor in the early mosaics do we find any figures of the Virgin alone; she forms a part of a group of the Nativity or of the adoration of the Magi,” it has been observed. At one time, one sect, the Nestorians, held that in Christ the two natures of God and man remained separate, “and that Mary, His human mother, was parent of the man, but not of God; hence the title ‘Mother of God’ was improper and profane.” But an opposition party, the Monophysites, contended that in Christ the human and the divine came together and became one nature, “that consequently Mary was indeed the Mother of God.”

In the end, Mary won. A decree of the first council of Ephesus condemned Nestorius and his party as damned heretics and Mary was proclaimed, as a matter of orthodox faith, Queen of Heaven.

There is an allegedly authentic portrait of the Virgin which the Empress Eudocia, traveling in the Holy Land, came upon and sent home to her sister-in-law, who subsequently placed it in a church in Constantinople. “At that time, it was regarded as of very high antiquity and supposed to have been painted from life.” It was this portrait which, in legend at least, the old and blind Dandole took with him when he besieged and took Constantinople in 1204, bringing it in triumph to Venice where it may be seen in the Church of St. Mark.

At any rate, devotion to Mary increased and there was hardly a painter of importance in the West who did not attempt her portrait, who did not see her in his mind’s eye and seek to make that vision known and visible to other men. Such paintings showed her with the radiance of the sun over her head and the crescent moon under her feet, for the book of Revelation had spoken of “a woman clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars.” Known as “Stella Maria,” “Star of the Sea,” from her Jewish name, Miriam, she was shown with a veil on which was embroidered a star, while the lily, emblem of purity, was placed in the hands of angels in attendance. The rose, symbol of love and beauty, was present, too, for is it not said in Canticles, “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys”?

She is an Enclosed Garden, a Well always full, a Fountain forever sealed, a Closed Gate, the Cedar of Lebanon, perfumed, healing and incorruptible.

Even unbelievers have paid her tribute, one, the philosopher Santayana, denying the existence of God but proclaiming Mary His mother, in a passage both reverent and ironical, and another, the essayist Charles Lamb, wishing he were a Catholic, so he could with propriety worship her. Greater praise has no woman—except, perhaps, in the simple faith and believing heart of the many and humble who call her, without equivocation, blessed: the true Mother of God.

There is a poem which the 15th-century poet François Villon wrote for his mother, addressed to the Virgin. A scholar, thief, perhaps pimp, killer—though in self-defense—and once condemned to be hanged, writing one of his greatest poems in the world on the eve of execution, Villon loved his mother and shared her humble faith, making of it a ballade, here presented in an English translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Lady of Heaven and earth, and therewithal

Crowned Empress of the nether clefts of Hell, —

I, thy poor Christian, on thy name do call,

Commending me to thee, with thee to dwell,

Albeit in nought I be commendable.

  But all my undeserving may not mar

 Such mercies as thy sovereign mercies are;

    Without the which (as true words testify)

  No soul can reach thy Heaven so fair and far.

      Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

   Unto thy Son say thou that I am His,

      And to me graceless make Him gracious.

   Sad Mary of Egypt lacked not of that bliss,

  Nor yet the sorrowful clerk Theophilus,

                 Whose bitter sins were set aside even thus

       Though to the Fiend his bounden service was.

  Oh help me, lest in vain for me should pass

(Sweet Virgin that shalt have no loss thereby!)

 The blessed Host and sacring of the Mass.

     Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

   A pitiful poor woman, shrunk and old,

 I am, and nothing learn’d in letter-lore.

   Within my parish-cloister I behold

A painted Heaven where harps and lutes adore,

And eke an Hell whose damned folk seethe full

sore:

   One bringeth fear, the other joy to me.

  That joy, great Goddess, make thou mine to be, —

Thou of whom all must ask it even as I;

  And that which faith desires, that let it see.

For in this faith I choose to live and die.

   O excellent Virgin Princess! thou didst bear

  King Jesus, the most excellent comforter,

       Who even of this our weakness craved a share

       And for our sake stooped to us from on high,

          Offering to death His young life sweet and fair.

   Such as He is, our Lord, I Him declare,

And in this faith I choose to live and die.

Here, in brief and in plain prose, an adaptation:

“I am a poor, old, ignorant woman who never learned to read but in church I see a picture of Paradise, which fills me with joy, and of Hell, where the damned are broiled, which frightens me. Let me go to heaven, Mother of God, where sinners go if they have faith and not pretense of it. In this faith I wish to live and die.

“Tell your Son to forgive me my sins, and He will do it, for it was you who bore Him, who left Heaven to become man and gave Himself so young to death to save us. He is our Lord and in this faith I wish to live and die.”

Finally, here is a poem by one, the author of such dark novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy, who wished he could believe:

CHRISTMAS EVE, and twelve of the clock,

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel

“in the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.