From the Nov/Dec 2003 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
This series explores the collected Marian writings of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor of the Church. Translating these writings into English for the first time is Joseph Almeida, associate professor of classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville. This is the twelfth installment.
In this 12th and final installment of excerpts from the Marian sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, we have proverbially saved the best for last. In a meditation, serendipitously encountered recently on the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the author made the following exclamation of praise: “O Mary! Blessed name that I love and venerate from the depths of my being!” (Magnificat vol. 5, no. 7, 104). This was striking because particular attention of any kind to the proper name of Mary is unusual in spiritual and theological writings. Not so, however, in St. Lawrence. In his third sermon on the angelic greeting, the name, Mary, is precisely the topic which engages the saint’s able reflections.
It is a remarkable fact, really, which escapes the notice of most, but which St. Lawrence perceived directly, that the angel Gabriel declined to use the Blessed Mother’s own proper name in his words of greeting. St. Lawrence takes the omission as a sign of the inherent and awesome holiness of the name of Mary, a reality that was immediate and self-evident to the angelic intellect.
“It seems amazing, brothers, that Gabriel, the messenger of God, sent to the Virgin as God’s groomsman and best man, did not use her express and proper name when he greeted her. The angel did not say: ‘Hail, Mary,’ but rather ‘Hail, full of grace.’ We do not learn the name of the Virgin from the angel but from the evangelist, who says: ‘[T]he virgin’s name was Mary’ (Lk. 1:27).
“The Jewish people do not dare to name God. They believe that it is not permitted to them. Moreover, they believe that it is permitted to no one, except to the high priest, but once a year, when he customarily enters the Holy of Holies and blesses the people on the Day of Atonement. Thus Isaiah said that his lips were impure, and he thought himself unworthy to take the divine name in his unclean mouth.
“Indeed, God Himself holds His own name to be of such great worth that He did not reveal it to the holiest of Patriarchs as He said to Moses: ‘I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them’ (Ex. 6:3). He did reveal his name to Moses, but first He desired that Moses take off his shoes, so he might hear the name while approaching God with the highest reverence. For priests, in a posture of reverence, do not enter the sanctuary except with their feet bare and washed. Thus God wished for Moses to hear the most sacred and most secret name with the greatest reverence.
“Perhaps for this reason, namely for the sake of showing great reverence, the angel dared not speak the most sacred name of Mary. I think that, after the name of Christ, which is above every other name, is the name of Mary, reverenced and adored even by the angels themselves. One must not think that the most glorious name of Mary does not abound in mysteries, nor that it was not given to her by divine inspiration, as were the names given to Christ and to John the Baptist. For if no mystery were hidden in names, then God would not have changed the names of Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob, and Christ would not have called the prince of the Apostles by the new name of Peter.”
For St. Lawrence, the mystery begins to unfold at one level in the prefigures of the Old Testament where Mary’s name is linked to the family of Moses and to a watershed event in salvation history.
“Mary’s glorious name is not wholly unknown or unspoken in the hidden mysteries of Sacred Scripture. For the sister of Moses, the most sacred prophetess and most noble princess of the Israelite women, was called by this name so that, by this very name itself, she might be an illustrious type and a brilliant figure of the Virgin Mother of God. For indeed we read that this one was a virgin, and we nowhere discover her to have been intimate with man or that she was the mother of children.
“Therefore in a certain way she prefigures and stands as a kind of image of the Holy Virgin. Who does not know that ‘all these things happened to them in figure’ (1 Cor. 10:11)? She was presented as a certain image of this divine Mary, a foreshadowing figure. She was the moon shining in the darkness. Mary was the woman clothed with the sun (cf. Rev. 12:1), bespattered with no stains as was that Mariam who was made leprous through the divine power because she sinned against God Himself by murmuring against Moses, the most holy father of his people (cf. Num. 12:1-15). Mary was ‘fair as the moon, bright as the sun’ (Song 6:10), pure, holy, and noble, both in body and in spirit, beyond all the creatures of God.”
Thus, Mariam of the Old Testament was a typological namesake for the Mother of God. It is, therefore, to the Hebraic etymology of Mary’s name that St. Lawrence turns to unlock its significance, “for the interpretation of the name reveals not a few divine mysteries.” This portion of St. Lawrence’s sermon is a tour de force of the application of linguistic learning to biblical interpretation, an area in which St. Lawrence excelled ahead of his time. The
allusions he uncovers, while not always uncritically accepted by modern scholars, are remarkable and manifold. One of the most magnificent and most familiar is the allusion in the name, Mary, to the “star of the sea,” a title for the Mother of God well known in Catholic hymnology.
“We take up now that allusion in Mary’s name to the ‘star of the sea.’ The Hebrew for luminary is moar, which comes from the Hebrew word for light, i.e., natural light, a light which is luminous according to its very substance. [The connection between MaRy and MoaR is through the Hebrew, consonantal root MR.] Thus Mary is called a luminary of the sea, or what amounts to the same thing, a star of the sea ( stella maris). She is a most splendid star rising from Jacob, a star for sailors on the waves of the great sea of this world, which churns more than any sea and is more dangerous by far. She directs the course of our navigation into the harbor of eternal salvation, just as the star led the Magi to Christ, and just as the pillar of fire in the night directed the Hebrews into the Promised Land and provided them a secure journey.
“About this star of the sea the most devoted St. Bernard, as was his custom, said many brilliant things: ‘Take away the body of the sun, where is the day? Take away Mary, the star of the sea, to be sure a great and expansive sea, what remains except fog, the shadow of death, and the thickest darkness.’ Thus Mary is the star of the sea, a most splendid star, to be sure, a most elevated star to whom St. Anselm shouted: ‘O blessed among women, who excels the angels in purity and surpasses the saints in sanctity.’ All the saints and elect of God will in heaven be ‘like the stars for ever and ever’ (Dan. 12:7). ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven’ (Gen. 22:17). But what kind of stars? ‘Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Mt. 13:43). Mary, however, is an exceptional and singular star, the highest of all, the brightest, most splendid, the greatest of all in virtue and influence.”
In this final excerpt one sees all the most important attributes of St. Lawrence as a Franciscan preacher, the title which, in his own opinion, named his true vocation. First, his sermons, according to the Capuchin reform of his day, were always and essentially tied to the interpretation of Scripture. Second, he outstripped his peers in knowledge of the biblical languages (especially Hebrew), which he applied creatively and skillfully to his interpretations of both Testaments. Third, and perhaps most importantly, he had a profound respect for the tradition of the Church in the interpretation of Scripture, as shown by his above appeals to Sts. Bernard and Anselm. Despite his own intellectual power and skill, St. Lawrence submitted himself to the guidance of this tradition. It is for these reasons, and not least for the Marian sermons which have occurred here in excerpt, that he himself was elevated to the status of Doctor.
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