'The Woman Clothed with the Sun' According to St. Lawrence of Brindisi
Pope John XXIII in 1959 proclaimed Saint Lawrence of Brindisi a Doctor of the Universal Church. Lawrence now ranks with the elite Saints and Doctors of the Church, with Augustine, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. Brindisi in the year 1559 witnessed the birth of Lawrence. His career is characterized by salient work for the Church and his order. Diplomatic missions for the popes of his time, work among the Jews, Chaplain in the Army, and defense of Catholic doctrine are a few of his labors which earned for him the praise and respect of many popes.
The Capuchin Doctor's love for Mary was astounding. He wrote magnificently on the majesty and importance of the Virgin Mother of Christ. Prolific writing about his heavenly Mother has stationed Mary's Doctor among the greatest of her eulogists.1 In his first seven sermons of the Mariale, a collection of 84 sermons on the Mother of God, Lawrence dwells on Our Lady. Her excellence and nobility are propounded from the greatness of the sign which appeared in the heavens: "A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet."2 Whether this woman is truly the Mother of God or merely accommodated to her is disputed in the Church.3 For the sage of Brindisi this woman is without doubt the Mother of Christ appearing in bodily glory. Rather than enter into a controversy concerning the interpretation of this text, our purpose here is to bring out the marvellous exaltation of the Mother of Jesus by setting forth select quotations. Saint Lawrence gives us a mystical interpretation of this great sign and each of the gems with which she is adorned. We shall let Lawrence speak for himself as much as possible. Let us first see why Mary appeared in such grandeur, then view the mystical meaning of each phrase, and finally examine just who it is that endowed the Virgin with such brilliance.
For Saint Lawrence, Saint John in Apocalypse 12:1 recorded a lasting memorial of the Virgin.
It seems John wished to record some especial apparition of the Virgin for a lasting memorial when he wrote: A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.
John speaks here of the Virgin Mother of God, according to the opinion of Epiphanius,4 Bernard,5 Rupert,6 and other Fathers. John himself seems to have implied this. No, rather, he seems to have expressed this as clearly as possible, for he says: She brought forth a male child, who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron.7 By these words he is without doubt describing Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords8 the Only-begotten Son of God and of the Virgin Mother of God. The Virgin Mother of God, the Mother of Christ, the Bride of God, the Queen of Heaven, the Mistress of the Angels, therefore, appeared to John clothed with celestial glory, resplendent with divine beauty and majesty: A great sign appeared in heaven.9
Immediately following, the Capuchin Doctor tells us that by this vision Christ wanted us to realize how precious His Mother is.
By this heavenly vision the Lord wished to show John how great and precious was the treasure He had entrusted to his keeping, the treasure in which are contained all the riches and glories of heaven. Through John He wished to show the universal Catholic Church, all the faithful of Christ, how exalted is the Virgin in the sight of the angels and elect of God in paradise. He did this lest we might perhaps think that Mary has been spurned by God, for the Holy Spirit has graced her with a certain holy obscurity in Sacred Scripture.10
On God's part:
By this heavenly vision God wished, as far as possible, to show the true11 Church the divine splendors of Mary and to unfold to the faithful the things that lie hidden in the Virgin. This He did that all might know, from the things written concerning her, how great and wonderful is the Virgin's glory.12
"A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet." From this heavenly vision two eminent privileges of Mary seem to radiate.
These, in brief, are the two facts which have been divinely revealed to us regarding the Virgin: she is the Spouse of God and she is the Mother of Christ, as Eve was the spouse of Adam and the mother of men. In this vision, these two things are impressed on our minds: she is the Spouse of God, the Queen of Heaven, the Bride of the Supreme King; and she conceived and brought forth Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, Himself true God. But how great and wonderful is the glory that accompanies these two! Her very vesture, her very throne, her crown itself manifests her glory: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. O vision sublime.13
In speaking of Mary's glory Lawrence eloquently presents this startling yet heartwarming comparison.
We often read that God, Himself, appeared to the holy patriarchs and prophets acceptable to God, to manifest His glory to them. But never did God appear in a glory and majesty such as this. To Abraham He appeared in heaven in the midst of the stars. 14 To Jacob He appeared with ministering angels on the summit of a heavenly ladder.15 To Moses He appeared in a burning bush, 16 To Isaias He appeared upon His lofty and exalted throne, while Seraphim sang the thrice-holy song.17 To Jeremias He appeared with a watchful rod;18 to Ezechiel in a triumphant chariot of glory;19 to Daniel in the majesty of a judge.20 But nowhere do we read that He appeared with a garment, with a throne, with a crown such as this.
Christ showed His glory to His chosen apostles on the holy mountain when He was transfigured before them. And His face shone as the sun and His garments became white as snow.21 Still, He was not exalted above the moon. In other passages, as in the Apocalypse, we often read that Christ appeared to John in glory, His face shining like the sun. At one time He appeared to John in the midst of seven golden lamp-stands and stars;22 at another time crowned with a rainbow;23 at still another time surrounded with many crowns.24 And yet never did He appear with a glory such as this.
What then is this? Is the glory of the Virgin greater in heaven than the glory of Christ? than the glory of God? By no means. It is customary, at marriages and public solemnities in the courts of princes and kings of this world, that the queen, because of her beauty and sex, enters glittering with gold and adorned with such splendid and costly garments, that she appears more glorious than even the king or prince, the king's son. So Mary appeared in heaven surrounded with a glory greater than that which even God or Christ has ever appeared.
No difficulty lurks here. Though Christ shone on earth with the great glory of His signs and miracles, He wished His apostles, and especially Peter, His Vicar and the Prince of the Apostles, to shine with an even greater glory by their miracles. They who believe in me, the works that I do they also shall do, and greater than these shall they do.25 For this same reason He wished His Mother to appear with a glory more wonderful than His own: A great sign appeared in heaven.26
Mary appearing with the lights of the universe is a great sign indeed.
How noble did Mary appear in the heaven of the Divine Plan! A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun. No more brilliant or splendid figure can be created by the mind of mortal man. Mary was not merely predestined for grace and glory with the holy angels and the elect of God and chosen for the greatest measure of grace and glory after Christ. She was also selected to fill the role of Mother of God, for she indeed is the Godbearer, the truly natural Mother of the Only-Begotten Son of God. She was the predestined Mother of Christ, having been predestined before all creatures,27 together with Christ, the firstborn of every creature. For Christ had been predestined to be the Son of Mary, just as Mary had been predestined to be the Mother of Christ. The light of the sun reflects the dignity of motherhood, which God had ordained for her. With a radiance surpassing that of the moon, her position above the moon signifies the excellence of her grace. The crown of stars bespeaks the dignity of her special glory. For to these three things had Mary been predestined: motherhood, grace, and glory. What a truly noble act of predestination, a selection so unique and ineffable that words cannot express it aptly!28
Let us now envisage with the newest Doctor of the Church the mystical meaning permeating the three gems of the universe with which the Mother of God is adorned.
"Clothed with the sun": Saint Lawrence attaches a loving meaning to this spectacle.
Mary was seen clothed with the sun that we may know that she is like the sun which, although one, illumines and warms each man as if it had been created by God for him alone, for there is no one that can hide himself from his heat.29 So the Virgin Mother of God is both the mother of all men and the mother of each individual man. To all she is a common mother; to each his own personal mother. As the one sun can be seen in its entirety by each and every man (for every man at the same time sees a complete outline of the sun), so every one of the faithful, who from his heart devotes himself entirely to the Virgin, may enjoy her complete love as if he were her only son. For this reason Christ spoke to Mary in the singular when He said: Woman, behold thy son.30
Mary as the Mother of Christ participates in His glory, hence she is clothed with the sun.
Mary also possessed Christ most perfectly as her only and beloved Son. How was it possible for the Virgin not to shine with sunlike splendor when she carried Christ, the Sun of infinite light, in her virginal womb? If God enclosed the sun in an immense crystal vase, would not that vase seem to be clothed with the very sun? In this way the sun clothes and adorns with its brilliant rays the pure substance of heaven, which it surrounds and engulfs. Just as the sun, glowing within the crystal on every side with its light, so the heavenly Virgin is clothed with Christ, the Sun of justice and glory. This divine vision signifies that, as bride and mother, the most holy Virgin shares in the glory of Christ and God to a high degree, so that no greater sharing or participation can be thought of.31
"And the moon was under her feet." The exaltation of Mary above every creature is displayed here by the Capuchin Friar.
If the sun signifies God, what does the moon signify if not everything under God?…
If the moon symbolizes everything under God, what is the significance of the moon under Mary's feet? Is it not that every creature under God lies beneath Mary's feet? It is written of Christ: Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor, and hast set him over the works of thy hands. Thou has subjected all things under his feet.32 This passage may also be accommodated to Mary. By this divine mystery, therefore, is portrayed the Virgin's wonderful exaltation above every creature.33
The moon is also an emblem of imperfection and hence is beneath Mary. For Mary the least desire of the Heart of Christ is the desire of her heart.
I see still another mystery contained in this passage. Among the philosophers, the moon sometimes symbolizes the light of our human reason and mind. To have the moon under one's feet, therefore, signifies to hold one's intellect captive in submission to Christ.34
"Upon her head a crown of twelve stars." In striking fashion the Marian Doctor expands on the Mother of God's power, exaltation, and ineffable dignity.
As Josue ordered the sun and moon to cease their course,35 Elias bade fire to fall from heaven36 and closed37 and opened38 heaven itself, so Mary can command all things to all creatures. O most exalted, O most divine Queen! Upon her head a crown of twelve stars. Christ rebuked the winds and the sea and they, to the great astonishment of men, obeyed Him: What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?39 He spoke to the dead, and instantly they arose.40 Mary enjoys a similar dominion, for she has been invested with divine sovereignty and power and crowned goddess of the universe. As God said to Moses: I have appointed thee the God of Pharaoh,41 i.e. to exercise the same power over Pharaoh that God has over his kingdom, so God has set Mary over the works of His hands.42 She is the Goddess of Heaven, the Queen of the universe, the true Spouse of the omnipotent God, the true Mother of the almighty Christ. She stands at the right hand of God as heaven's exalted Queen: The queen stood on thy right hand in gilded clothing.43 Queen to whom neither angels nor men can give adequate praise! Could ever a man with fitting words give voice to the boundless and singular glory of this incomparable, this divine Queen? A Woman clothed with the sun . . . and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.44
In the sixth of the seven sermons on the Vision of Saint John, Mary's sainted scholar tells us who it is that endowed her with such majesty. In the paragraph immediately following he tells us of her love for Jesus.
It was from the Child in her womb that Mary received all her glory. He clothed her with the sun, rolled the moon ben eath her feet, and set upon her head a crown of twelve stars. The Virgin Mother of God had this glory not from herself, but from God, the Creator of heaven, Who had made the sun, the moon, and the stars, She had her glory from Christ, her Son, through Whom all things, even Mary herself, have been made.45 Christ was not only a son to Mary, but also a father who had created her, and adorned her with every virtue and blessing. He was her Lord, her true and supreme God.
The noble soul of Mary, therefore, found infinite motives and objects of love in Christ. It is written of Christ: He is all lovely,46 or, as it is in Hebrew: He is entirely desires, or He is all desires, i.e. everything desirable is found abundantly in Him. Christ was wholly desirable, infinitely lovable; Mary loved Him and worshipped Him with all her heart.47
For Saint Lawrence, as we have stated, the woman clothed with the sun, raised above the moon, and crowned with twelve stars is without doubt the Virgin Mother of Christ. From this unique and marvellous vision, then, the seer of Brindisi gives us profound insights into the esteem of God and Christ for her, her return of love, and the tender and personal loving care she gives her devoted children.
After painting so magnificent a picture of his heavenly Mother, it is no wonder that the editors of the Mariale48 wrote of Mary's Herald: Mariae nomen semper in corde et ore habuit.
Stanley Gahan, O.F.M.Cap.
1 Cyril O. Vollert, S.J., "The Mariology of St. Lawrence of Brindisi," Capuchin Educational Conference (Capuchin College, Washington, D. C„ 1960), II, Commemorative Issue, 77, states that: "Without exaggeration we can safely say that St. Lawrence of Brindisi is the outstanding Mariologist of his own time, and unquestionably ranks with the great Mariologists of all time."
2 Apoc. 12:1.
3 Dominic J. Unger, "Did Saint John See the Virgin Mary in Glory?" The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (The Catholic Biblical Association of America, Washington, D. C„ 1949-1950), XI and XII.
4 Cf. Contra Haer., 78 (MPG, XLII, 1043), and the Apocryphal sermon De Laudibus Deiparae, MPG, XLIII, 494.
5 Cf. Sermo in Dom. inf. Oct. Assumpt., MPL, CLXXXIIII, 1007.
6 In Apoc., MPL, CLXIX, 441, p. 12.
7 Apoc. 12:5.
8 Ibid., 19:16.
9 Vernon Wagner, O.F.M. Cap., trans. Sermon One, "On the Excellence of the Virgin Mother of God," from the Mariale by St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Round Table, XVII (1952), 32f.
10 Ibid., p. 33.
11 I.e., Orthodox.
12 Wagner, O.F.M. Cap., op. cit., p. 34.
14 Cf. Gen. 12:7.
15 Cf. Gen. 28:12f.
16 Cf. Exod. 3:2.
17 Cf. Isa. 6:1-3.
18 Cf. Jer. 1:11.
19 Cf. Ezech. 10:8.
20 Cf. Daniel 7:10.
21 Cf. Apoc. 1:13-16.
23 Ibid., 4:2f.
24 Ibid., 4-10.
25 Cf. John 14:12. St. Lawrence uses the plural, whereas the Vulgate has the singular.
26 Wagner, O.F.M. Cap., op. cit., p. 34f.
27 Cf. Col. 1:15, 17.
28 Eliot Timlin, O.F.M. Cap., trans. Sermon Two, "On the Nobility of the Virgin Mother of God," from the Mariale by St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Round Table, XVII (1952), 72.
29 Psalm 18:7.
30 Wagner, O.F.M.Cap., op. cit., p. 38.
31 Capistran Ferrito, O.F.M.Cap., trans. Sermon Three, "On the Inestimable Treasures of the Virgin Mother of God," from the Mariale by St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Round Table, XVII (1952), 72.
32 Psalm 8:6-7; Heb. 2:7.
33 Wagner, O.F.M.Cap., trans. Sermon Four, "The Exaltation of the Virgin Mother of God Above Every Creature," op. cit., p. 149.
34 Ibid., p. 153.
35 Cf. Jos. 10:12-15.
36 Cf. III Kings 18:20-40.
37 Cf. III Kings 17:1.
38 Cf III Kings 18:41-46.
39 Matt. 8:26f.
40 Cf. Mark 5:41f.; Luke 7:14f.; John 11:43f.
41 Cf. Exod. 7:1.
42 Cf. Psalm 8:7.
43 Ibid., 44:10.
44 Wagner, O.F.M. Cap., trans. Sermon Five, "The Singular Privileges of the Virgin Mother of God," op cit., XVIII (1953), 30f.
45 Cf. John 1:3.
46 Cant. 5:16.
47 Wagner, O.F.M.Cap., trans. Sermon Six, "The Sorrows of the Virgin Mother of God," op. cit., p. 73f.
48 St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Mariale Opera Omnia (Padua, 1928), I, xvii.
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