Catholic Activity: Celebrating the Feasts of the Blessed Virgin
Here are some ideas to honor Mary for her feast days and during the months of May and October.
Two months in the year are especially dedicated to the Blessed Mother — the month of May and the month of October. Special devotions to Mary during May go back to medieval times. October is the month dedicated to the rosary, since the feast of the Most Holy Rosary is celebrated on October 7th. In these months the Blessed Mother's statue or her picture in the living room are daily decorated with fresh flowers and candles. The family adds one or the other prayer, mornings and nights, such as the Salve Regina or the Memorare or the Magnificat. It is traditional throughout the Catholic world to sing hymns in honor of Mary the Mother of God. Some of those we have included here. We love especially the round by Mozart. It is composed only on the two words with which the Angel greeted Our Lady the first time and which countless millions of lips have repeated since "Ave Maria." "Meerstern" (Stella Matutina) has been received enthusiastically by everyone who has heard it sung even once.
AVE MARIA W. A. Mozart. Canon in four parts.
AVE MARIA DEAR Text and melody, Echo Hymnodiae Coelestis, 1675.
SALVE REGINA Text by Herman the Cripple, 1013-1054, monk of Reichenau; melody fifth (Lydian) mode.
'TIS SAID OF OUR DEAR LADY "An old invocation when one is on a pilgrimage to Our Blessed Lady" — Text and melody from the hymn book of Nikolaus Buttner, 1602.
STELLA MATUTINA Pilgrim hymn from Paderborn, Germany. As no translation has proved satisfactory, we are giving the Latin version, by Msgr. Martin Hellreigel.
BEAUTIFUL, GLORIOUS Text, 18th century; melody, Geistliche Gesänge, Einsiedeln, 1773.
A SINGLE BRANCH THREE ROSES BORE From Silesia, 1840.
VIRGIN BLESSED, THOU STAR THE FAIREST Italian Laude, 15th century
Once I came across a family custom among friends of ours which I found so lovely that I want to mention it here. They treated their May altar in a most original way. As their apartment was too small to allow for an extra table, they put the statue of the Blessed Mother on their grand piano. The decorating was a family affair. Everybody could contribute what his heart urged him to bring. Throughout the month of May the smaller children would bring flowers which they had picked on their way home from school. Sometimes they placed their favorite toy at the feet of the Blessed Mother for a particular evening. It was the most irregular, but also the most lovingly arranged May altar I have ever seen.
From the old country we took with us the longing to pray at a wayside shrine in honor of Mary. As there were no shrines here, we simply made one ourselves. During the month of May we often walk in a little procession over to this shrine, saying the rosary and singing hymns. There is no reason why people could not make a shrine of their own in their gardens — under an apple tree, behind a rose bush — and during the month of May the whole family could once or twice a week have their May devotion outside.
We must lose the inhibition that our friends or neighbors "might mind" such exhibition of our faith. In all the years we have been living in America, time and again we have found that the average American is a most tolerant person when he senses that what you do is the outgrowth of an inner conviction. Take this instance: Three times a day the bell in our chapel rings the Angelus, whereupon everybody in the house stops talking, drops any work he is doing at that moment, and says the age-old prayer, "The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary." At the words, "And the Word was made flesh." we make a genuflection. After the Angelus we make the sign of the cross and return to whatever we have been doing before. Most of the time people of various religious affiliations are among our guests, but not one single time have I seen the flicker of a smile or any sign of criticism or contempt or whatever else we timid Catholics might be expecting. We are put to shame by every Mohammedan. At certain times of the day he takes his little prayer rug and kneels down, facing the east, to say his prayers, not minding what anybody might think or say. What his prayer toward the east is for the Mohammedan, the Angelus might be for us Catholics. If the circumstances of our life allow it, why not start this custom next month of May and keep it up ever after?
The day of the Assumption, August 15th, is the oldest and most important of all the feast days of the Blessed Mother. In the old country it is also known as "Great Flower Day." All the women and girls come to church on this day with their arms full of neat bundles of herbs, which they put down in the sanctuary at the Offertory procession. On this feast day the Church blesses the herbs immediately preceding Mass. The priest, standing before the altar and facing the people, pronounces a long and solemn blessing at the end of which the herbs are sprinkled with holy water and are incensed. There are special herbs which traditionally have to be included. Days before the feast the people are collecting them in the meadows and woods. Every family sends one such bundle to be blessed. Afterwards it will be kept in the corner at home near the picture or statue of the Blessed Mother. In cases of sickness a leaf is dropped into the food of the patient and during heavy thunderstorms one of the herbs is put into the fire on the kitchen stove — it is a sacramental and is meant to protect us in body and soul.
The connection between the feast of the Assumption and the blessing of herbs is told in an old legend When Mary the Mother of Jesus felt that her end was drawing near, she sent her guardian angel to summon the Apostles, who had gone out into the world to preach the Gospel of her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. When they received the summons, they came in a great hurry and were just in time to witness the happy death of their dear Mother. Everyone had come except Thomas. He was three days late. When he heard that the Blessed Mother had been resting in the tomb for days, he cried bitterly and pled with the Apostles to open the tomb once more and let him glance at the beloved features. The other Apostles yielded to his plea, but as they opened the tomb, they found it filled with flowers, which gave out a heavenly scent. On the place where they had laic the body there was only the shroud left — the body had been borne up to heaven by the angels, where it was joined by the holy soul of the Mother of God. According to the legend, all the flowers and herbs on earth had lost their scent after Adam and Eve committed the first sin in the Garden of Eden. On the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother, however, the flowers were given back their scent and the herbs their power to heal.
If the day of the Assumption is the oldest and most important feast of the Blessed Mother, the Church also remembers lovingly all the major events of her life. These days used to be days of obligation in the early Church. Only the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th is such today in the United States. But every Catholic home in which the Mother of God is venerated will celebrate reverently these days her birthday on September 8th and her feast day on September 12th (the feast of the Holy Name of Mary). These could be celebrated in almost the same way as the birthday and feast day of the mother of the house: her place (statue or picture on the wall) decorated with flowers or evergreens, according to the season; vigil lights; a special song added in her honor at the family's morning and evening prayers; a little celebration with perhaps some reading (a story, a poem, a psalm from her office, a hymn out of the breviary, etc.) in the evening. There are many ways to honor someone we love.
When Mary was three years old — so we are told by tradition — her parents presented her in the temple, where she remained for the next few years, together with other young children from the first families (she was a princess of the royal house of David). These girls, while serving God, learned to spin, weave, and embroider the vestments and curtains around the temple. Helping to take care of the many priests on duty, they also learned to prepare food. They had to read long passages from Holy Scriptures, like the Book of Psalms; and they had to learn by heart parts of the Prophets and Proverbs. Thus, long before the angel talked to Mary, she knew of the tragic life and the cruel death predicted for the Messiah. Every year on the twenty-first of November, when we celebrate the feast of the Presentation, the Church draws our thoughts to that part of Mary's life.
The anniversary of the day when the angel said, "Hail, Mary, full of grace" — words repeated millions and millions of times ever since — the twenty-fifth of March, the Annunciation, is perhaps the most widely known feast of the Blessed Mother. From the earliest days of Christianity, in the catacombs of Rome, up to today, painters throughout the ages have tried to capture this greatest moment in human history, while composers have kept the "Ave Maria" ringing ever new.
When St. Luke tells us that, after the angel left, Mary "went with haste over the meadows" to visit her aged cousin, Elizabeth, the Church wants us to remember this in the feast of the Visitation on the second of July, so that we may always feel assured that Mary is ever ready to come to our aid.
According to Jewish teaching, Mary's child, being the firstborn son, belonged in a special way to God. Forty days after his birth, every male child had to be redeemed by the offering of a lamb, if the parents were well to do, or a pair of doves if they were of simpler means. At the same time the mother had to bring a purification offering while she was presenting her boy, through the priest's hands, to God. This twofold holiday in Mary's life we celebrate with her on the second of February. Because old Simeon would exclaim that this Child was "the light to enlighten them that sit in darkness," the Church blesses in a most solemn way the candles for the use of the altar. Therefore the day is popularly known as Candlemas Day. On this day every family takes the candles and vigil lights they will use during the year into the church for the solemn blessing. On the evening of this feast of the holy light, many of the blessed candles are lit for family prayer, thus leading the children into the world of holy symbols.
The next time the Church shows us the Mother of God, and also our Mother, is as "Mater Dolorosa" — the Mother of sorrows. The painters have pictured her as such usually either standing under the cross or with the dead body of her Son resting in her arms. When we celebrate the "Mater Dolorosa" on the fifteenth of September in our families, we might tell our children that her suffering did not start on Good Friday but at the very moment when she said to the angel, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word." As at the moment of her solemn fiat the Son of God started His earthly existence under her heart, all the words from the prophets and Psalms took on a new meaning for her. She knew that this little Child, Who would be born nine months hence, would be the "Man of Sorrows" of Holy Scripture. Any mother who holds a baby in her lap, or watches the first steps and the growing up of the older ones, should meditate on what it would mean to her if she knew that her little child would one day be cruelly tortured by a seething mob. For this is what Mary knew while she fondled the newborn baby. When she kissed the little hands and feet, she felt her lips already stained by the precious blood gushing forth from deep wounds; when she tended carefully the hair of the little boy, she knew it would be matted one day by cruel thorns and blood and sweat and the spittle of His enemies. Such thoughts and meditations will bring our Mother much closer to our families.
When the children see the mother decorate the altar of the Blessed Mother in the home on the seventh of October, they will ask, "What feast is today, Mother?" Then we mothers will tell our children, as soon as they are old enough to understand, the story of the apparition of the Blessed Mother to one of her sons, St. Dominic; this story shows how we can please her most: while saying ten "Ave Marias," we should meditate in our heart on the happenings of her earthly life. There are the joyful ones — the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity of our Lord, His Presentation in the Temple, and His Finding again in the Temple; there are those which tear her heart asunder in most bitter suffering her Son's agony in the Garden, His scourging at the Pillar, His crowning with thorns, His carrying the heavy cross, and His bitter end on Calvary; and there are her moments of triumph when He rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven sent the Holy Ghost, took her up to Heaven. and. finally, crowned her as Queen of Heaven. Thus the Blessed Mother — so legend tells us — taught St. Dominic how to say the rosary. On that day we wish to say it solemnly together — maybe all three, the joyful mysteries in the morning, the sorrowful after lunch, and the glorious at night. It is amazing how even very little children get the feeling for mental prayer if they are shown pictures of the appropriate mysteries while the grownups say the rosary.
On the sixteenth of July there is another chance for the children to ask Why, and that is when they see the mother decorate Mary's picture. There is another touching story we can tell our children to make them understand how solicitous our heavenly Mother is for our eternal salvation. Once she appeared to another of her sons, St. Simon Stock, Father General of the Carmelite Order in England. She showed him the scapular, the straight piece of cloth falling down from the shoulders to the feet in back and front, with an opening for the head. This was a part of the clothing of men and women in the time and country of Our Lord. Mary said to St. Simon, "Whoever will wear this garment, and die clothed in it, I shall come myself and take him up into heaven on the Saturday after his death." This is known as the "Sabbathine Promise" and on the sixth of July we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (popularly known in Europe as the Scapular Feast). Simon Stock added the scapular to the habit of the Carmelite monks and nuns. For practical use among lay people it was cut down until it reached its present-day size — just two little pieces of brown cloth worn over the shoulders on white tape. One by one, as the children grow up, they will be enrolled in the scapular. What a consolation to parents and children if they know that their beloved ones, whom God called to Himself, died clothed in the scapular!
Activity Source: Around the Year with the Trapp Family by Maria Augusta Trapp, Pantheon Books Inc., New York, New York, 1955