Friday, April 13, 2012

Our Lady's Hour

The Office of the Virgin holds a place of honor for Mary at all times of the day. But it is Vespers that encapsulates her mystery most profoundly. The standard Divine Office dedicates Vespers to Mary by reciting both the Magnificat and a Marian hymn; the Office of the Virgin in a like manner gives this hour a special significance. As Peter Damian says, “just as the evening of the world was falling... she suddenly cried out in a loud voice filled with praise of God: “My soul magnifies the Lord”... the whole universal Church who is indeed the mother of Christians, who bears the same Light in her soul that Mary once bore in her womb, as the day draws to its close, proclaims God's greatness with proper praise and with thanks for favors received” (Letter 17 no 13). No other hour of the day summarizes Mary's faithfulness and her purpose as this hour.

According to the version of the “Little Office” that the University of Dayton provides us, Vespers begins with Psalm 109. Speaking of the power of the Lord (we interpret this as the power that will be given to Christ), the psalmist depicts a ruler who brings justice to the earth. Interestingly, the Marian antiphon that is attached to this psalm refers to Mary's sweet fragrance that fills the heavenly court of God. In the following psalm (112), the praises to God are set within the idea of Mary's position near God: “His left hand is under my head, and His right hand shall embrace me.” Mary's proximity to the Divine is apparent; wherever God is, Mary is there. This understanding helps us to unpack, yet still not even begin to fully comprehend, the mystery of Mary.

The next two psalms follow the same pattern. All four of the psalms are enveloped by antiphons from the Song of Songs, specially chosen to cause the reader to meditate on the characteristics and actions of Mary. Psalm 121 interestingly details the “house of the Lord,” a heavenly Jerusalem, where later Christians will develop the belief that the faithful will go after death. Even more, the Marian antiphon from the Songs says, “I am black, but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem: therefore has the King loved me, and brought me into His chamber. Now is the winter past.” The first part of the antiphonal verse can also be translated as “I am dark, but lovely” and one biblical commentary notes that this refers to the beloved in the Songs having worked in her brother's vineyard and being burnt by the sun; the “city girls” made fun of her because her skin was much darker than theirs. When I thought about this, it caused me to connect the two concepts of the Assumption and Mary's chosenness. She was chosen because she was made different from all other women, hence her “darkness” (although wouldn't it be more natural to think of Mary's skin being much fairer than others? Perhaps I am too influenced by depictions of her in art), and because of her chosenness by God, she was brought up to his heavenly abode through the Assumption.

Psalm 126 discusses the work of God in bringing children to mankind. Offspring have been viewed as blessings from God, like arrows in a quiver. Does this make us think of how Mary bore Jesus, the Son of God? The antiphon, “...arise my beloved, and come. You are made beauteous” from Song of Songs 2:10-11 might cause one to think of Mary as the mystical spouse of God, and how the Holy Spirit worked in this union to bring about the offspring that would be the savior of humankind. The final psalm, with no antiphon, is a praise of God for all that God has done, and how the power and judgment of God had been directed specifically to the people of Israel. Note the connection between the lyrics of Psalm 147 “Who declares His word to Jacob? His justices and His judgments to Israel. He has not done in like manner to every nation, and His judgments He has not made manifest to them” and “As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever” of the Magnificat.

Two other events during Vespers cause readers to reflect upon Mary's unique role in salvation history. First is the Marian hymn “Ave Maris Stella” which dates back to the early Middle Ages. The beautiful and descriptive words are as follows, with the Latin on the far left, its direct translation in the middle (Wikipedia cites Liber Hymnarius, Solesmes, 1983 for the translation) and the modern translation from Dayton on the right:

Ave, maris stella,         Hail, star of the sea,                Hail, you Star of the ocean!
Dei mater alma,          Nurturing Mother of God,       Portal of the sky!
atque semper virgo,    And ever Virgin                        Ever Virgin Mother
felix cœli porta.          Happy gate of Heaven.               Of the Lord Most High!

Sumens illud «Ave»        Receiving that "Ave"                  Oh! By Gabriel's Ave,
Gabrielis ore,                 From the mouth of Gabriel,        Utter'd long ago,
funda nos in pace,         Establish us in peace,                 Eva's name reversing,
mutans Evæ nomen.     Transforming the name of "Eva"  Establish peace below

Solve vincla reis,        Loosen the chains of the guilty, Break the captive's fetters;
profer lumen cæcis,    Send forth light to the blind,         Light on blindness pour;
mala nostra pelle,       Our evil do thou dispel,                All our ills expelling
bona cuncta posce.     Entreat (for us) all good things.    Every bliss implore.

Monstra te esse matrem,  Show thyself to be a Mother:  Show yourself a Mother;
sumat per te precem    Through thee may he receive prayer Offer Him our sighs,
qui pro nobis natus      Who, being born for us,                Who for us Incarnate
tulit esse tuus.              Undertook to be thine own.        Did not you despise.

Virgo singularis,        O unique Virgin,                             Virgin of all virgins!
inter omnes mitis,      Meek above all others,                  To your shelter take us:
nos culpis solutos      Make us, set free from (our) sins,    Gentlest of the gentle!
mites fac et castos.        Meek and chaste.                 Chaste and gentle make us.

Vitam præsta puram,      Bestow a pure life,              Still, as on we journey,
iter para tutum,              Prepare a safe way:             Help our weak endeavor,
ut videntes Jesum           That seeing Jesus,                 Till with you and Jesus
semper collætemur.        We may ever rejoice.            We rejoice forever.

Sit laus Deo Patri,        Praise be to God the Father,  Through the highest heaven,
summo Christo decus, To the Most High Christ (be) glory, To the Almighty Three,
Spiritui Sancto             To the Holy Spirit                  Father, Son, and Spirit,
honor, tribus unus.    (Be) honour, to the Three equally. One same glory be.
Amen.                           Amen.                                      Amen.

One could write a whole post on this very hymn. Copying the hymn here serves the purpose of showing how Mary's characteristics shine forth as a means for believers to seek to implore from her help from God. One can see all the titles of Mary in this hymn: Star of the Sea, Mother of God, New Eve (implied), Virgin of all virgins, Gate of Heaven, Loosener of chains (implied) (I have also seen her called Undoer of Knots). And yet, at the end of the hymn, all the glory is given to the Trinity, thus reiterating Mary's proximity to God but her subservience to the Divine. This brings us to the last event in Vespers that draws us under Mary's mantle: the Magnificat. Although much time and effort and petitions are spent in the presence of Mary, everything about her is directed not unto herself but to He who created her and filled her “with good things.” It is God that makes her special. Thus, the Magnificat is, in Mary's own words, a glorification of God for all that he has done.

That is why Peter Damian wrote so much about her and saw the importance of giving her this time of day; by reciting Mary's own hymn at the dusk of every day, one participates in remembering all that God has done for Israel, for humanity. It is fitting that we say these words at this time. It is fitting that this should be her Hour. Believers can thank God for all blessings at the end of every day, and at the end of life as well. Then perhaps one can enter through this Gate of Heaven into paradise.



  1. Exquisite! You have captured the meaning of the texts of Vespers perfectly, above all the way that through Mary they enable us to see God and his work in the world. I especially enjoyed your reading of the antiphons and psalms as a way of demonstrating this interaction, and your sense of the Magnificat as directing us towards God.

    On Mary's "blackness": this is often read as Mary's (potential) shame in becoming pregnant before she and Joseph were married. She might seem "black" before the world, but she was beautiful in her pregnancy nevertheless. As for what color her hair or skin was: it is true that she is often depicted in art as light, but one thirteenth century discussion of her appearance according to Aristotelian and Galenic physiology suggested that it was most appropriate that she have dark eyes and dark hair. See Irven Resnick, “Ps.-Albert the Great on the Physiognomy of Jesus and Mary,” Mediaeval Studies 64 (2002):217-40.


  2. LR: This is an all-around superb post.

    I agree with you about the influence of visual art depictions (and Bernard of Clairvaux, and Amadeus of Lausanne, and the Song, too, I guess) and Mary’s fair skin. This has been a long-noted phenomenon with Jesus as well. As we will see in the New World, the “dark-skinned Virgin” is taken quite literally.

    I don’t have anything else to add. I really enjoyed the post.

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  4. I definitely thought that I had commented on this before, but when I was going through to count how many comments I'd written, I didn't see it. Maybe it didn't go through properly.
    I thought that this was a really interesting and wonderfully written post! I enjoyed your treatment of Vespers, and I really appreciate the sentence, 'This understanding helps us to unpack, yet still not even begin to fully comprehend, the mystery of Mary.' This sentence sort of sums up what can be said about most of the readings we've done through the quarter! The psalm you are referring to with that sentence is very interesting in that it hints at Mary's divine connection, while maintaining the cloudiness that surrounds the Virgin and her divinity.
    I thought it was interesting that you linked Mary's darkness to her elevated status among humans as being specifically chosen by God to bear Jesus Christ. It's even more interesting to me that she was made fun of by the “city girls” for the thing that (perhaps) set her above and beyond her peers. Again, her uniqueness is mentioned in the Ave Maris Stella.
    I love how you ended the post, re-emphasizing how fitting it is that, by reciting Mary's own hymn at dusk, people reflect on all that God has done for them.


    P.S. I deleted my previous comment because I forgot to initial it