Today is the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary.
What is the significance of this unique celebration? Joseph Almeida, in an article from the Lay Witness archive, gives us many reasons to understand why in the Divine Praises we exclaim, “Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother.”
In this 12th and final installment of excerpts from the Marian sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, we have proverbially saved the best for last. In a meditation, serendipitously encountered recently on the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the author made the following exclamation of praise: “O Mary! Blessed name that I love and venerate from the depths of my being!” (Magnificat vol. 5, no. 7, 104). This was striking because particular attention of any kind to the proper name of Mary is unusual in spiritual and theological writings. Not so, however, in St. Lawrence. In his third sermon on the angelic greeting, the name, Mary, is precisely the topic which engages the saint’s able reflections.
It is a remarkable fact, really, which escapes the notice of most, but which St. Lawrence perceived directly, that the angel Gabriel declined to use the Blessed Mother’s own proper name in his words of greeting. St. Lawrence takes the omission as a sign of the inherent and awesome holiness of the name of Mary, a reality that was immediate and self-evident to the angelic intellect.
“It seems amazing, brothers, that Gabriel, the messenger of God, sent to the Virgin as God’s groomsman and best man, did not use her express and proper name when he greeted her. The angel did not say: ‘Hail, Mary,’ but rather ‘Hail, full of grace.’ We do not learn the name of the Virgin from the angel but from the evangelist, who says: ‘[T]he virgin’s name was Mary’ (Lk. 1:27).
“The Jewish people do not dare to name God. They believe that it is not permitted to them. Moreover, they believe that it is permitted to no one, except to the high priest, but once a year, when he customarily enters the Holy of Holies and blesses the people on the Day of Atonement. Thus Isaiah said that his lips were impure, and he thought himself unworthy to take the divine name in his unclean mouth.
“Indeed, God Himself holds His own name to be of such great worth that He did not reveal it to the holiest of Patriarchs as He said to Moses: ‘I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them’ (Ex. 6:3). He did reveal his name to Moses, but first He desired that Moses take off his shoes, so he might hear the name while approaching God with the highest reverence. For priests, in a posture of reverence, do not enter the sanctuary except with their feet bare and washed. Thus God wished for Moses to hear the most sacred and most secret name with the greatest reverence.
“Perhaps for this reason, namely for the sake of showing great reverence, the angel dared not speak the most sacred name of Mary. I think that, after the name of Christ, which is above every other name, is the name of Mary, reverenced and adored even by the angels themselves. One must not think that the most glorious name of Mary does not abound in mysteries, nor that it was not given to her by divine inspiration, as were the names given to Christ and to John the Baptist. For if no mystery were hidden in names, then God would not have changed the names of Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob, and Christ would not have called the prince of the Apostles by the new name of Peter.”
For St. Lawrence, the mystery begins to unfold at one level in the prefigures of the Old Testament where Mary’s name is linked to the family of Moses and to a watershed event in salvation history.
“Mary’s glorious name is not wholly unknown or unspoken in the hidden mysteries of Sacred Scripture. For the sister of Moses, the most sacred prophetess and most noble princess of the Israelite women, was called by this name so that, by this very name itself, she might be an illustrious type and a brilliant figure of the Virgin Mother of God. For indeed we read that this one was a virgin, and we nowhere discover her to have been intimate with man or that she was the mother of children.
“Therefore in a certain way she prefigures and stands as a kind of image of the Holy Virgin. Who does not know that ‘all these things happened to them in figure’ (1 Cor. 10:11)? She was presented as a certain image of this divine Mary, a foreshadowing figure. She was the moon shining in the darkness. Mary was the woman clothed with the sun (cf. Rev. 12:1), bespattered with no stains as was that Mariam who was made leprous through the divine power because she sinned against God Himself by murmuring against Moses, the most holy father of his people (cf. Num. 12:1-15). Mary was ‘fair as the moon, bright as the sun’ (Song 6:10), pure, holy, and noble, both in body and in spirit, beyond all the creatures of God.”
Thus, Mariam of the Old Testament was a typological namesake for the Mother of God. It is, therefore, to the Hebraic etymology of Mary’s name that St. Lawrence turns to unlock its significance, “for the interpretation of the name reveals not a few divine mysteries.” This portion of St. Lawrence’s sermon is a tour de force of the application of linguistic learning to biblical interpretation, an area in which St. Lawrence excelled ahead of his time. The allusions he uncovers, while not always uncritically accepted by modern scholars, are remarkable and manifold. One of the most magnificent and most familiar is the allusion in the name, Mary, to the “star of the sea,” a title for the Mother of God well known in Catholic hymnology.
“We take up now that allusion in Mary’s name to the ‘star of the sea.’ The Hebrew for luminary is moar, which comes from the Hebrew word for light, i.e., natural light, a light which is luminous according to its very substance. [The connection between MaRy and MoaR is through the Hebrew, consonantal root MR.] Thus Mary is called a luminary of the sea, or what amounts to the same thing, a star of the sea ( stella maris). She is a most splendid star rising from Jacob, a star for sailors on the waves of the great sea of this world, which churns more than any sea and is more dangerous by far. She directs the course of our navigation into the harbor of eternal salvation, just as the star led the Magi to Christ, and just as the pillar of fire in the night directed the Hebrews into the Promised Land and provided them a secure journey.
“About this star of the sea the most devoted St. Bernard, as was his custom, said many brilliant things: ‘Take away the body of the sun, where is the day? Take away Mary, the star of the sea, to be sure a great and expansive sea, what remains except fog, the shadow of death, and the thickest darkness.’ Thus Mary is the star of the sea, a most splendid star, to be sure, a most elevated star to whom St. Anselm shouted: ‘O blessed among women, who excels the angels in purity and surpasses the saints in sanctity.’ All the saints and elect of God will in heaven be ‘like the stars for ever and ever’ (Dan. 12:7). ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven’ (Gen. 22:17). But what kind of stars? ‘Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Mt. 13:43). Mary, however, is an exceptional and singular star, the highest of all, the brightest, most splendid, the greatest of all in virtue and influence.”
In this final excerpt one sees all the most important attributes of St. Lawrence as a Franciscan preacher, the title which, in his own opinion, named his true vocation. First, his sermons, according to the Capuchin reform of his day, were always and essentially tied to the interpretation of Scripture. Second, he outstripped his peers in knowledge of the biblical languages (especially Hebrew), which he applied creatively and skillfully to his interpretations of both Testaments. Third, and perhaps most importantly, he had a profound respect for the tradition of the Church in the interpretation of Scripture, as shown by his above appeals to Sts. Bernard and Anselm. Despite his own intellectual power and skill, St. Lawrence submitted himself to the guidance of this tradition. It is for these reasons, and not least for the Marian sermons which have occurred here in excerpt, that he himself was elevated to the status of Doctor.
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While the U.S. government deliberates over possibly military action against Syria, we as Catholics have the opportunity to re-familiarize ourselves with the Church’s teaching on what makes a war just. Below is a helpful summary by Fr. William Saunders from the Jan/Feb 2002 issue of Lay Witness magazine.
-The war must confront an unquestioned danger. St. Augustine, quoted by St. Thomas, said, “A just war is apt to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.” The Catechism says that “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain” (no. 2309).
-The legitimate authority must decide if war is necessary and must be acting on behalf of the people.
-The reasons for declaring the war must be based on just objectives and not a masking of ulterior motives. St. Thomas taught that the right intention is essential “so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.” St. Augustine also noted, “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace or punishing evildoers, and of uplifting the good.” An evil intention (such as to destroy a race or to absorb another nation) can turn a legitimately declared war waged for just cause into a wrongful act.
-All reasonable peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted or deemed impractical or ineffective. The contentious parties must strive to resolve their differences peacefully before engaging in war, which can be done through negotiation, mediation, or even embargoes. Here, too, we see the value of an international mediating body, such as the United Nations.
-The good that is achieved by waging war must not be outweighed by the harm. What good is it to wage war if it leaves the country in total devastation with no real victor? Modern means of warfare give great weight to this criterion insofar as weapons of mass destruction make for a real possibility of a devastating, disproportionate response.
Probability of success
-The achievement of the war’s purpose must have a reasonable chance of success. If a country can meet the above criteria, then it may justly enter war. Further, a country could come to the assistance of another country that is not able to defend itself provided these criteria are met.
By reading The Faith Understood, you can:
- Discover the basic principles of authentic biblical interpretation.
- Learn why the Magisterium is the only way to correctly interpret the Bible and the writings of the Church fathers, doctors, and saints.
- Find out why Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium are the only three legs of the theological tripod that preserve the whole truth about God.
- See why faith and reason, science and theology, the natural and the supernatural are always agreeable.
- Explore the Incarnation and its primary Christological heresies that threatened the early Church.
- Unlock one of the most misunderstood areas of Catholic theology in the person of Mary.
- Unravel the mystery of eschatology—the “last things”—judgment, purgatory, hell, and heaven.
The Faith Understood is great for college students, adult faith formation programs, and motivated Catholics aspiring to learn more about their faith.
The author, Mark Zia, S.T.D., received a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, Italy. He is associate professor of Theology and director of Academic Enrichment Programs at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He and his wife Julia are the parents of six children.
For more information on how to order this book, click here.
The September/October issue of Lay Witness magazine discusses Catholic Social Teaching–in particular, the balance between the things of this world and the things of eternity. The print edition features articles by some of your favorite authors.
David Fagerberg gives an entertaining and enlightening summary of Catholic Social Teaching from the perspective of beloved Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton. No matter the merit of our apostolic works, Fr. Dwight Longenecker reminds us, our efforts must be directed toward attaining holiness–not simply being “good.” Longtime friend of CUF Dr. John Crosby, in commemoration of the closing of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, looks to Gaudium et spes as a blueprint for our attitude toward temporal affairs. Rounding out the issue, James Gaston comments on a topic relevant to all Christians: work. Noting the great dignity man has in relation to work, Gaston gives the readers of Lay Witness encouragement that the greatest benefit of our labor is the spiritual benefit it imparts.
In A.D. 587 Emperor Maurice granted the title “ecumenical patriarch” or “universal bishop” to John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople. Pope St. Gregory the Great condemned the title. Later, when others tried to apply them to him as bishop of Rome, he refused the titles. In refusing the titles, was the Pope denying the primacy of the papacy as some Eastern Orthodox Christians maintain?
In a word, no. Pope St. Gregory the Great was simply affirming the constant Catholic doctrine that individual bishops are truly successors of the apostles and not just agents of the Pope or any other patriarch. However, in doing so, he never denied his primacy, which on other occasions he clearly affirmed, noting, among things, that “the See of Constantinople is subject to the Apostolic See.”
Perhaps the best way both to see the Orthodox argument and to answer it is to let St. Gregory speak for himself in his letters. Here we see that, while he does repudiate the title of universal bishop, he does so only insofar as such a title is understood to deny the legitimate authority of the other bishops in their dioceses. The Church has always taught that all bishops are successors of the apostles; their authority is not derived from the Pope (though it is his role to confirm the brethren). He writes to John, Patriarch of Constantinople:
Consider I pray thee, that in this rash presumption the peace of the whole Church is disturbed, and that the title of Ecumenical Patriarch is in contradiction to the grace poured out on all in common. . . . And thou wilt become by so much the greater as thou restrainest thyself from the usurpation of a proud and foolish title: and thou wilt make advance in proportion as thou are not bent on arrogation by derogation of thy brethren. . . . Certainly Peter, the first of the Apostles, himself a member of the holy and universal Church, Paul, Andrew, John — what were they but heads of particular communities? And yet all were members under one Head. . . (Epistle XVIII).
However, just because Gregory affirms Christ as Head does not mean he is denying his own primacy as the successor of St. Peter, whom Christ established to oversee Church affairs on earth. In fact, later in the same letter, the Pope says that he is prepared to assert his universal authority, if necessary. He points out to John the Faster that he wants to persuade him to change out of a “sense of shame.” But, adds Gregory, “if the detestable and profane assumption could not be corrected through shame, rigorous canonical measures should then be resorted to” (Epistle XVIII).
This is clearly not a mere letter of advice written to an equal. Notice that he doesn’t spend any time arguing that he has the authority to forbid the use of the title. Gregory is aware and he knows that John is aware that he has recourse to “canonical measures” if his direction is not carried out.
Elsewhere, Gregory notes that the Apostolic See, which is a reference to the bishopric of Rome and Pope, is “the head of all the churches.” It is this “See of Peter,” he says, “to whom was committed the care and primacy of the whole Church” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VI, 767).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the constant teaching of the Church on the primacy of the Pope, teaching that the Successor of Peter has “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (Catechism, no. 882). “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head” (ibid., no. 883, emphasis original; cf. nos. 884-85).
General: That people today, often overwhelmed by noise, may rediscover the value of silence and listen to the voice of God and their brothers and sisters.
Mission: That Christians suffering persecution in many parts of the world may by their witness be prophets of Christ’s love.
When John began preaching repentance, many were probably not sure exactly why. There were many messianic and apocalyptic expectations among the Jewish people of this time, and seeing a striking figure like John would raise the question, “Is he the one we expect? On what authority does he act?”
“Who are you?” the priests and Levites ask. John immediately says that he is not the Christ, i.e., the Messiah. He has not come to redeem or deliver the people, but to prepare them for the One Who will: Jesus. This provokes the next question.
“What then? Are you Elijah?” Certain interpretations of Malachi 4:5 and Sirach 48:1-10 led to the popular belief that Elijah would literally return to anoint the Messiah. John denies that he is Elijah literally returned, in spite of the probable resemblance, based on an extended stay in the desert, his clothing, and his zeal. John is the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Lk. 1:57-63) and not Elijah actually returning from the sky in a fiery chariot (cf. 2 Kings 2:11).
When Jesus calls John “Elijah,” He means that John fulfills the words of Malachi and Sirach. John is a “new” Elijah, proclaiming with fiery zeal the advent of Christ and the need for repentance. John emulates Elijah in spirit and as prophet (Lk. 1:17), but he is not the historical figure of 2 Kings.
“Are you the prophet?” Based on Deuteronomy 11:15, many expected the Messiah to be a “new Moses” who would teach the law of God to His people. John, although he is truly a prophet in the spirit of Elijah, rightly denies that he is the new Moses. The prophet is actually Jesus, whom Moses and others foretold. Jesus perfectly fulfills the Mosaic role, preaching the law of charity (e.g., Matthew 5-7, 22:37-40) and redeeming the world through His own life-giving act of charity (cf. Jn. 15:13; Is. 53).
Church Fathers, like Pope St. Gregory the Great, have always held up John as an example of great humility and truth. Although he was the prophet of the Messiah’s advent, he did not make arrogant claims about his unquestionably important role; rather, he simply called himself “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” the herald of deliverance from captivity (cf. Is. 40:3). Such a voice is heard, but gives way or bows to the event greater than the voice. Deliverance is greater than the message that deliverance is coming, so St. John the Baptist humbly states, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:27-30).
This Faith Fact can be accessed here at cuf.org.
Emmaus Road author Dan Burke was recently interviewed on an episode of EWTN’s Bookmark to discuss his book Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.
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