A Spotless Rose - Programme Notes

“When I heard the shouting and the screaming I knew what had happened – I knew they had found them, but I couldn’t go and join in. I went to the statue of the Virgin Mary, which we had set up in the camp, and I touched the bottom of her robe, and I prayed, and I cried.”

This, from the wife of a Chilean miner, on day 17 of the vigil at the San José copper mine last year, illustrates the contemporary power which Mary, Blessed Virgin and spotless rose of Christianity, is able to exert over people’s lives – a power which has evolved over twenty centuries.

Mariology is the study of the life and veneration of Mary, mother of Christ, who has been a favourite topic in modern and ancient Christianity throughout the ages. The veneration of Mary takes various forms such as prayer, art, sculpture, music, poetry and architecture. It ranges from simple writings and drawings to the construction of churches at sites of Marian apparitions, such as those in Lourdes and Fátima. In Roman Catholicism, Mariology is a logical and necessary consequence of Christology: Jesus and Mary are son and mother, redeemer and redeemed. Mariology is not simply a theological field studied by a few scholars, but a devotional concept embraced by millions of Catholics who venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary. Marian doctrines are the central part of Mariology and an important part of church life: Marian prayers, pilgrimages to Marian shrines, Marian devotions during the months of May and October, the construction of buildings for her dedication, Marian titles and Marian feast days are all part and parcel of it.

The history of Mariology goes back to the 3rd century. The earliest recorded prayer to Mary, the sub tuum praesidium, is dated in its earliest form to around the year 250 and reads

Beneath your compassion,
we take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one.

In the 5th century, the Third Ecumenical Council declared Mary to be Theotokos (God-bearer). Churches dedicated to Mary were constructed across the Christian world, and the teaching of the Assumption (Ascension) of Mary became widespread. During the Middle Ages chants such as Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea) and the Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen) emerged and became staples of monastic plainsong. The Renaissance period witnessed a dramatic growth in Marian art with masterpieces produced by Bellini, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, the Madonna often being represented with her child. During the Reformation, the Catholic Church defended its Mariology against Protestant views. Also in the 16th century, the Council of Trent formally endorsed the Catholic tradition of paintings and artworks in churches, which resulted in a great development of Marian art and music during the baroque period. Mariology in the 19th and 20th centuries was dominated by discussions about the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Pope Pius XII issued the Dogma of the Assumption, and the Second Vatican Council declared Mary to be the Mother of the Church. A number of Marian papal encyclicals and apostolic letters have been issued since the 16th century, from the Rosary of Pope Leo XIII to the two Marian dogmas of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception which were established by popes in the 20th century.

The teachings of the church are that Mary gave birth without losing her corporal virginity. Her corporal integrity was not affected by giving birth. The Church does not explain how this occurred physically, but teaches that virginity during child birth is different from the virginity of conception. Biblically this was predicted somewhere between the eighth and sixth centuries BC by the prophet Isaiah (Ch. 7:14): “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.”

The story of the gospels rests on three giant events: Jesus’ virgin birth, his atoning death, and his bodily resurrection. Of the three, the Immaculate Conception has caused the most controversy. Interestingly, when the angel Gabriel first appeared to Mary and mentioned the idea of a virgin birth, she too had trouble with it. In fact, the Bible suggests that she wasn’t as startled by the angel’s appearance as she was by the message. “Then said Mary unto the angel, how shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34) It is equally interesting that the most comprehensive Gospel account of this event is that of St Luke, a physician, whose training should have prejudiced him against the whole idea of a virgin birth.

That Mary remained a virgin after giving birth was questioned in early Christianity. Most Protestants disagree with this teaching, although Martin Luther and his contemporaries believed in the ever Virgin Mary. The scriptures say little about this, mentioning the brothers of Jesus, but never "sons of Mary". “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Juda and Simon?” (Mark 6:3).

The feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8, was established in 1476 by Pope Sixtus IV. In some countries (Italy and the Philippines, for example) it is a public holiday. Throughout the centuries, Catholics have viewed the Virgin Mary from a multitude of perspectives, at times derived from specific Marian attributes ranging from queenship to humility. Since the Reformation many Christians have opposed Marian venerations, and that trend has continued into the 21st century among progressive and liberal Christians, who see the high level of attention paid to the Virgin Mary both as being without sufficient grounding in Scripture and also as distracting from the worship due to Christ. Groups of liberal Catholics view the traditional image of the Virgin Mary, as presented by the Catholic Church, as an obstacle towards the realisation of true womanhood, and as a symbol of the systemic patriarchal oppression of women within the Church. Other liberal Christians have argued that the modern concepts of equal opportunity for men and women do not resonate well with the humble image of Mary, obediently and subserviently kneeling before Christ.

 

Notes by Peter Parfitt ©2011 Aberdeen Bach Choir