May is upon us! Which means Catholics everywhere are “doing something extra” for their blessed mother in Heaven.
For example, a friend of mine had her prep class commemorate May by presenting flowers to our Lady. You can imagine the exchange:
“Whose mum likes flowers?” Twenty hands go up.
“Can you think of any other mothers who might like flowers?” Then a knowing glance at a nearby image of Mary.
Twenty hands go up again. “Jesus’ mum! She’d like flowers!”
It’s not a bad way to celebrate the feast, given the gospel of the day relates the way to the Father.
The way to the Father, of course, is Jesus. And to paraphrase St Louis de Montfort, “the fastest way to Jesus is through Mary — the same way he came to us.”
Jesus is the whole point of Marian devotions. “To Jesus through Mary,” as so many of the saints have put it.
I think displays of affection towards the mother of Jesus “humanise” our faith. They remind us that our faith is not informed by a noble idea, but by a relationship. At an individual level, Christian faith rests on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and Marian devotions help us to keep that encounter natural and proximate.
A Marian Resolution for May
Formulating a May resolution is a bit like formulating a Lenten resolution — or come to that, a New Year’s resolution! It’s a personal matter, it probably shouldn’t draw too much attention, and hopefully it is accomplished!
In general, I think it pays to think “small and daily.” Pausing at noon each day to pray the Angelus (or the Regina Caeli during the Easter season) is a good way to commemorate May.
Or, if you’re already in the habit of praying the Angelus, you could commemorate May by adding another short Marian prayer somewhere in your day. There’s lots to choose from: the Salve Regina for example, or the Magnificat, or the Memorare.
This is a very simple way to commemorate the month of Mary, but I think it’s a good one. It’s easy to imagine a small resolution like this pleasing our Lady — just as those flowers from the grade preps must have pleased her.
Nonetheless, our Holy Father in Rome has much greater ambitions for us, and why shouldn’t he? (Fathers are typically more demanding of their children.) When he addressed the crowd in St Peter’s Square on Wednesday — the first day of May and the Feast of St Joseph the Worker — Pope Francis asked us to commemorate May by praying the rosary:
In this month of May, I would like to recall the importance and the beauty of the prayer of the Holy Rosary. Reciting the Hail Mary, we are led to contemplate the mysteries of Jesus, to reflect, that is, on the central moments of his life, so that, as for Mary and for St. Joseph, he may be the center of our thoughts, our attention and our actions.
It would be nice if, especially in this month of May, you would pray together as a family, with your friends, in the parish, the Holy Rosary or some prayer to Jesus and the Virgin Mary! Praying together is a precious moment for making family life and friendship even more stable! Let us learn to pray more in the family and as a family!
Praying a family rosary is a great idea. Praying a rosary with a friend is a bit more challenging to organise. But the idea of a short pilgrimage lends itself. Choose two churches a twenty-minute walk apart, arrange with a friend to meet at the Marian shrine in one church, and walk together to the other while reciting the rosary. Good for the soul and good for the body!
It’s no coincidence that Christmas is celebrated in exactly nine months time. The two feasts are related. As you would expect, nine months separates the celebrations of the Lord’s conception and birth.
But which came first? The Annunciation or Christmas? What I mean is, did the Church nominate 25 December as the Feast of the Nativity, and count back nine months to nominate the Feast of the Incarnation? Or did the Church nominate 25 March as the Feast of the Incarnation, and count forward nine months to nominate the Feast of the Nativity?
The evidence points to the latter. Christians were slow to celebrate birthdays, which had pagan connotations, and our Lord’s birthday was no exception. But celebrating the event of the Incarnation carried no such baggage. It seems that the liturgical feast of the Annunciation is many centuries older than the feast of the Nativity. But why nominate 25 March as the date of Jesus’ conception?
Good Friday: 25 March AD 29
In the earliest extant writing on the subject, Tertullian identifies the date of Jesus’ conception with the date of Jesus’ death. (According to ancient Hebrew tradition, the great prophets died on the anniversary of their conception.) And the date of Jesus’ death, Tertullian, writes, is 25 March AD 29.
And the suffering of this “extermination” was perfected within the times of the lxx hebdomads, under Tiberius Cæsar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April, on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses. 1
The eighth day before the calends of April is 25 March, the vernal equinox — in the ancient world, the first day of spring. Tertullian writes in 220 as though it’s already a well established tradition in the Church to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s death on 25 March.
This is apparently an idea that persisted for many centuries, since we find Augustine making the same claim in 431:
For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered. 2
Adding weight to this tradition is the liturgical feast of St Dismas — the good thief who defended Jesus at Calvary. Saints are usually celebrated on the anniversary of their death. St Dismas, obviously, shares his anniversary of death with Jesus. And his feast day? 25 March.
In the Julian calendar, the vernal equinox (25 March) was recognised not only as the first day of Spring, but also the first day of the new year. It’s only since 1752 that England celebrates 1 January as New Year’s Day. To the mind of Christendom, it was only fitting that Jesus should be conceived at the start of a new year, and that he should die at the start of a new year. After all, the Incarnation and the Redemption inaugurated new epochs in human history.
Good Friday: 14 Nisan
The Ancient Israelites, of course, were loathe to use the Julian calendar of the Romans. They maintained their own Hebrew calendar which was lunar, not solar.
It’s much easier to identify the date of Jesus’ death by this calendar. The Scriptures very clearly juxtapose Jesus’ death and the Paschal feast, which occurred in the month of Nisan.
Although there is a tendency to identify the Last Supper with the Passover meal, the Gospel of John suggests that Jesus died on the fourteenth day of Nisan, which in lunar terms is the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and in ritual terms, the day before Passover.
We read in John’s Gospel that the Jewish authorities who arrested Jesus and presented him to Pilate:
“would not enter the palace themselves; there was the paschal meal to be eaten, and they must not incur defilement.” (Jn 18:28)
More explicitly, in setting the scene for Pilate’s verdict, the evangelist writes:
“It was now about the sixth hour, on the eve of the paschal feast.” (Jn 19:14)
παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα : the day of Preparation for Passover. This is significant. It means that at the ninth hour — the hour of Jesus’ death — the priests were slaughtering the paschal lambs in the Temple.
In the Talmudic tradition, the fourteenth day of Nisan corresponds not only with the slaughter of the spring lambs in Egypt, and the smearing of the lambs’ blood over the doors of the Hebrews. It corresponds too with the creation of the world, the birth of the patriarchs, and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.
So. If you follow the Talmudic and Patristic traditions, a lot of history is packed into 25 March. It is the first day of Creation. It is the shared birthday of the Hebrew patriarchs. It is the day that Abraham meant to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is the day the Hebrew slaves in Egypt sacrificed the first paschal lambs. It is the day the Word became flesh. And it is the day that our Lord died on the cross and conquered death.
I should add, though, that though ancient scholars coalesced towards 25 March AD 29 as the date of Jesus’ death, modern scholars nominate 7 April, AD 30. Maybe that’s something I’ll blog about in a fortnight.
-  Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, VIII:17. Translated by S. Thelwall in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 160. ↩
-  Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity, IV:5. Translated by Arthur West Haddan in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume III: St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 74. ↩
On retreat there’s lots to write about, but no time to write. No time to blog, anyway.
So this is just a quick “sequel” to yesterday’s post, lest any readers are confusing the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Virgin Conception of Christ.
Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Interesting fact: four years after this dogma was formally defined, Bernadette Soubirous claimed to see an apparition at Lourdes: a beautiful woman who said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” It was unlikely the 14-year-old Bernadette had heard of the term, which helped her credibility.
If our Lady did say this at Lourdes – and the Church has declared the apparition worthy of belief – we have a heavenly vindication not only of this dogma, but of papal authority. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was an old one, and Our Lady has appeared many times over the centuries, but only now, after the Church had formally defined the dogma, did Mary explicitly identify with it.
That’s probably something to keep in mind, if you come across an apparition which is pushing for something innovative.
Another interesting fact: Muslims believe in the Immaculate Conception too. I didn’t know that either. But Universalis told me, so it must be true.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin, that twist in our nature that makes our will tend not to follow what it knows to be right. It was this grace that enabled Mary to give a true and considered “Yes” to the request, conveyed by the Angel Gabriel, that she should consent to be the mother of the incarnate God.
The doctrine was almost universally believed over the centuries but was only formally defined as a doctrine of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Because it is so old, it is one of the Marian doctrines that Islam shares with the Catholic Church, though of course the theological details are very different.
Thirty-five comments and counting in response to my last post. Read it and weep Joel Peart!
(I was always conscious that his guest-posts attracted more comments than my posts. Which he didn’t care about at all. Says more about a possible inferiority complex on my part, really.)
In all seriousness, I don’t really consider the 35 comments as a badge of honour. But it does salve my conscience. I may have been neglecting this blog in recent days, but others have ensured its activity.
The comment thread on priestly celibacy has raised some interesting points and made some surprising turns, which I will engage. But not tonight. Tonight, I want to consider a much more amiable subject: Mary and the month of May.
The first day of our Lady’s month also happens to be the feast of St Joseph the Worker. I’m sure this is very appropriate from Mary’s point of view. I imagine she would much prefer to see her dear husband, who was the love of her life, honoured in place of her.
But it’s also very appropriate from our point of view. If we want to do something special for our Lady in May, then there’s surely no better example to follow than Joseph’s.
There may be a temptation — it’s one of mine, anyway — to make grand promises in honour of our Lady. “This May, I’m going to pray all four parts of the rosary, every day. Twenty decades, every day!”
Uh huh. I bet the enemy rubbed his hands in glee when I made that sort of resolution. The ensuing discouragement was a fait accompli. And maybe even Mary herself rolled her eyes at me (while appreciating the thought I’d like to think).
But Mary is our mother, and we can approach her like small children. There’s no need to “think big.” The modest gestures of affection from small children invariably delight grown ups. Especially mothers.
My plan this May is to place a fresh flower in front of an image of our Lady every morning. (No surprises, though, if I falter even in this small duty.) And in the evening, I’ll try to ponder one of the mysteries of the rosary. Just for 60 seconds. Barely long enough to imagine the sights and sounds of the scene.
And for inspiration, I’ll look to St Joseph. He, more than any other saint I think, exemplifies holiness by way of the ordinary duties of every day. He did nothing very remarkable. He was a faithful husband and father, a “mere carpenter” who lived a quiet life but lived it well. Entirely in the service of the Lord.
We don’t have to sanctify ourselves on our knees, in a church, away from the world. We can sanctify ourselves in the midst of our daily life — on the street, in our work, between phone calls.
Not that I’m picking the flowers to sanctify myself. I just want to do something for my Blessed Mother. Without forgetting Mum this Mothers’ Day, of course!