Mary's Rejoicing at the Resurrection (Sermon for Sunday, May 14th, 2023)
“I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”
No one really wants to be alone. Even the most introverted people feel at times the pull of an evolutionary instinct that tells us that if we want to survive, we can’t do it on our own. Beyond the physical level, we know by faith that God does not desire to save each one of us on our own, but by being gathered together into the Church.
In these last two weeks of Paschaltide, before the celebration of the Ascension of the Lord this Thursday, the Lord is getting us ready for His departure from this world – His Ascension into Heaven. He assures us that He will not leave us orphans, that we will not be alone. He will send us the Spirit, whom the world cannot accept, because the world does not know Him. Rather, the Spirit will come to those who have faith and are prepared by the gift of faith to receive His consolations.
We will have the chance to consider the Spirit more in-depth at Pentecost in two weeks. To prepare ourselves to receive the Spirit, we can look today to the human person who most opened Her heart to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, whose soul was so formed by Christian faith to see and know Him, the one so intimately related to the Holy Spirit that She is known as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit: the Blessed Virgin Mary. To do so today is propitious since She is the model of all motherhood, and since we are in Her month of May, and it would be a shame to let this month go by without devoting some attention to Her.
Mary is known as the spouse of the Holy Spirit because it was through the Holy Spirit that She conceived the Son, Jesus. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” the archangel Gabriel tells Her at the Annunciation (Lk 1:26). We commemorate Her special relationship with the Holy Spirit and His role in the conception and Incarnation of Christ when we pray the Angelus prayer. This prayer, which depicts the dialogue between Gabriel and the Blessed Mother, interspersed with the Hail Mary, is traditionally prayed at 6 a.m., 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day. You might be familiar with a famous painting by Jean-Françoise Millet called The Angelus that depicts a man and a woman bowing their heads in prayer in the middle of a field with a church off in the distance. In Catholic countries, neighborhoods, and schools, everything would come to a stop at six, twelve, and six as the church bells chimed in a special pattern for the Angelus.
During the season of Easter, the Angelus is replaced by the Regina Caeli, the seasonal Marian antiphon that we chant at the conclusion of Mass during the Easter season. The antiphon as we are used to hearing it is concluded by a final verse and response and then the collect, just like the “Pour forth, we beseech you oh Lord” prayer at the end of the Angelus. This is why, at the conclusion of the 11 a.m. Mass during Paschaltide, we chant this extra verse and response and the priest chants the concluding collect – to take the place of the Angelus that we would otherwise be praying individually at noon. Likewise, at noon each Sunday, the Holy Father leads the faithful in praying the Angelus (or, during Paschaltide, the Regina Caeli) in St. Peter’s square each Sunday, so our communal recitation of the Regina Caeli is an act of union with the Vicar of Christ and successor of St. Peter.
Each of the Marian antiphons has its history of development, but the Regina Caeli’s is the best. In the sixth century, while Rome was experiencing a plague epidemic, Pope St. Gregory the Great lead a penitential procession out from St. Peter’s Basilica past the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian in an act of prayer and penance to beg for deliverance from the plague. As they passed Hadrian’s mausoleum, he looked up and saw an angel sheathing his sword, and heard the angel singing the words of the Regina Caeli, praising the Blessed Mother for Her intercessory role in ending the epidemic: “Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia, for He whom Thou didst merit to bear, alleluia, Has risen as He said, alleluia,” and St. Gregory responded with the final words of the antiphon: “Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia! (Pray to God for us, alleluia!)”
So when we sing this antiphon, we can think of ourselves taking part in this dialogue between St. Gregory and the angel, praising the Blessed Mother for interceding for the people afflicted by illness and rejoicing with Her in Her Son’s Resurrection. In fact, all chants have this character of a dialogue, which is why there are parts sung by a cantor, or by the priest, and then by everyone together. This is one of the many ways in which chant is different than familiar hymn-singing, and in which it more closely represents the angelic singing of heaven, by existing in this back-and-forth dialogue.
Praying the Regina Caeli reminds us of the joy that ought to infuse the Easter Season, and indeed all of our lives as Christians. Even though we face ordeals, sufferings, and trials, we remember that Christ has conquered death and opened the gates of Heaven by His Resurrection. We rejoice because we have the possibility of sharing eternal life with Him, along with the Blessed Mother and all the saints who are already rejoicing for all eternity at Christ’s victory.
Mary is our mother. In many families, the disposition or mood of the mother sets the tone for the entire family. When Mom is distressed, panicked, or sad, the entire family is out of sorts. But when Mom is overjoyed, she sets about sharing that joy with others, each mother in her own unique way – singing, baking, organizing games. You could think of the many mothers these past two weeks whose joy at their children’s first Holy Communions filled their homes with joy.
The point here is not to add more stress to moms, or to encourage them to an artificial joy for the sake of their household, but rather, to remind us that we already have a Mother who is rejoicing, a Mother who has the perfect perspective and does not ignore or regard with naiveté the trials and burdens of this life, but who looks through them to the joy of Her Son’s Resurrection. She is rejoicing, and Her rejoicing fills the entire Church with joy, just as the rejoicing of a mother fills her home with joy – only magnified by the greatness of the one who rejoices and the greatness of what She rejoices over. She knows that Her Son has not left as orphans. We can strive to adopt the attitude commended by St. Ambrose: “Let the soul of Mary be in each of us to magnify the Lord, and the spirit of Mary be in each of us to rejoice in God!”
We can see, then, why these traditional Marian antiphons with which we conclude Mass here at St. John’s are so important. Not only do they tie us to the prayer of Catholics throughout the world, who in monasteries, cathedrals, parish churches, and the domestic churches of Christian homes sing these timeless antiphons written by saints or even given to saints by the angels, but they teach us how to have a stronger relationship with the Mother of God.
Christ tells us today, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live.” Mary points us to the reason for this hope: She who rejoices at Her Son’s Resurrection, who can see Him because He lives and She lives, already assumed into Heaven body and soul – She is praying for us, just as She prayed for those suffering from the plague in Rome as the angels gave St. Gregory the Easter antiphon in Her honor. The fact that She is rejoicing and praying for us gives us joy in Her Son’s Resurrection as well, and inspires in us the faith that we will see Him when He calls us to the mansions prepared for us, of which He assured us last Sunday, because He lives, and we live in Him.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
VI Sunday of Easter, A.D. MMXXIII
Image: Diego Velázquez, Coronation of the Virgin