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Liturgical Commission


Corrado Maggioni

The Virgin Mother not only reveals the Mystery of the Son to believers, but she gives Him to them for all time: indeed her motherhood is ordered to the continual presence of Christ among humankind. Now since Christ is present among us in a very special way in the liturgy (cf. SC 7), it is in the sacramental economy that also Mary's mediation acquires meaning.

In this perspective, St Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444) exclaimed, «Through you, Mary, believers come to the grace of Baptism» (Homily 4). Unless we want to persist in spiritualism or fall into sentimentalism, we must agree that Mary's maternal action in the life of the faithful is expressed supremely well in liturgical actions: it is here that the relationship willed by Jesus on the cross between Mary and her children is expressed and deepened (cf Jn 19,25-27).

Mary's indispensable presence in the historical event which we profess in our baptismal belief (Do you believe in Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary?), leads us to reflect on her commemoration in the sacramental event. In fact, reflection on baptismal rebirth developed from the first centuries onwards, in the light of Christ's conception by the power of the Holy Spirit. In her understanding of Baptism, the Church is naturally oriented to the mystery of Christ's conception from the Virgin who believed: the human birth of the Son of God, destined for the rebirth of men and women as God's children, led to a spontaneous connection between the mysteries.

Already in the second century, in speaking of the Incarnation, St Irenaeus praises the work of the Son of God, the "Pure One who, in a pure way, opened that pure womb that regenerates men in God" (Adversus haereses IV, 33,11). The Virgin's womb comes to coincide mystically with the Church's baptismal womb. Through Christ who re-lives in Baptism, it can be said that in a certain sense Mary's motherhood re-lives in the motherhood of the Church.

From the Christological reason for remembering the Virgin in the baptismal profession, we come to the ecclesial dimension of her commemoration in the celebration of Baptism: Mary is the icon of the Church, virgin and mother, who, by the power of the Spirit, brings Christ to new birth in the faithful. This is what the inscription in the baptistry of St John in the Lateran says: «At this font, the Church, our mother, gives birth from her virginal womb to the children she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit».

The patristic testimony

The typological relationship between Christ's conception in Mary's womb and that of Christians in the baptismal font, was indicated sagely by the Fathers of the Church: the Spirit who begot Christ in the Virgin's womb, begets Christ in the faithful, making them his Body.

This is how St Ambrose (+ 397) comments to his neophytes about the mystery of holy Baptism: «In coming upon Mary, the Holy Spirit brought about the conception and accomplished the redemption; in the same way, by resting on the baptismal font and on those who receive baptism, the same Spirit effects the reality of rebirth» (De mysteriis 53, 59).

Also St Augustine (+ 430), introducing the newly baptized to the mystery of the Church's motherhood, feels the need to recall the Mother of the Lord: «Mary gave birth to your Head, the Church gave birth to you. Also the Church is a mother and virgin: a mother through the womb of charity, a virgin through the integrity of faith and piety. She gives birth to peoples, but they are members of one people only, of which she is the body and bride. Also in this she can be likened to the Virgin, because, though she gave birth to many, she is the mother of unity» (Sermo 195, 2).

In his famous Christmas homilies St Leo the Great (+ 461) explains that the birth of Christ is the beginning of the re-birth of Christians, showing in this regard Mary's unique role: «In the sacrament of rebirth we are united to Christ's spiritual birth, since, for every man who is reborn, the water of baptism is a little what was the Virgin's womb, in the sense that the same Spirit who filled the Virgin fills the water of the font; the sin that was abolished there by the holy conception, is abolished here by the mystic washing» (Tractatus 24, 3).

And again: "The birth that Jesus assumed in the Virgin's womb, has placed it in the baptismal font: it gives to the water what it gave to his mother; the power from the Most High and the shadow of the Holy Spirit that made Mary the Mother of the Saviour, now brings the faithful new birth through this water" (Tractatus 25, 5). The theme continues also in later tradition, as is testified, for example, by Blessed Isaac of Stella (+ 1178), who shows the complementarity between the fruitfulness of the Virgin and that of the Church: «Mary gave birth to the absolutely sinless Head for the Body; the Church gave birth, in the forgiveness of every sin, to the Body for the Head. Each is the mother of Christ, but neither without the other gives birth to the whole Christ» (Sermo 51).

Liturgical prayer

The mystic connection between Mary and the Church is also confirmed in the ancient Roman liturgy of Easter night, a baptismal time par excellence. It is significant that in the Gelasian Sacramentary, the preface of this night recalls Mary's virginal parturition, the model of the motherhood of the Church that, in Baptism, begets children for the Father: «O mystic and venerable exchanges of this night! O holy eternal blessings of our holy mother Church! (...). Mary exulted in the most holy (kind of) birth, the Church exults in the birth of her children». The most holy attitude recalls the work of the Spirit, the same Spirit who is at work in Christ's birth of the Virgin and in the birth of the members of his Body in the baptismal font. Also to be noted is the verb exulted, relating to Mary's parturition, alluding to the fact that it was painless because it was virginal: the Virgin's joy at Christmas night is the Church's joy at Easter night.

Also in the Supplement to the Gregorian Sacramentary the Preface of Easter night develops the mystery of the Church's birth in the waters of baptism following the pattern of Mary's virginal and joyful birth,. This is the text: «O night that destroyed the darkness and opened the way to eternal light. O night that deserved to see the devil defeated and Christ arise. O night when hell was despoiled, the saints freed from the underworld, the way opened to their heavenly home. On this night countless sins are washed away in the waters of baptism, and the children of light are born. Like the Mother of the Lord, our holy Mother Church conceives them without stain, she gives birth to them painlessly, and leads them with joy to the heavenly realities».

The relationship between Mary and the Church outlined by the Fathers and set forth in the ancient liturgical texts, we find today in the prayer for the blessing of a baptismal font: «Almighty God... you give us the joy of inaugurating with solemn rite this font of salvation which flows from the womb of our mother Church (...) We ask you to send the life-giving presence of your Spirit upon this font... The power of the Spirit made the Virgin Mary the mother of your Son; send forth the power of the same Spirit, so that your Church may present you with countless sons and daughters and bring forth new citizens of heaven» (Blessing, 1187). In the Church that baptizes we can discern the mysterious image of the motherhood of the Virgin, in whose womb was formed the body of Christ, «the first-born among many brethren» (Rom 8,29).

Finally, the relationship between Mary and Baptism is expressed, in the form of a prayer, in the formulary n. 16 of the Mass to the Blessed Virgin Mary, entitled Virgin Mary, source of light and life. This is the text of the entrance antiphon: «Hail, Mother of light: a Virgin, you gave birth to Christ and became the model of the Church, our Mother, bring to new birth in the chaste waters of Baptism a people of faith». It is a greeting addressed to the Virgin Mother, acclaimed as the model of the Church, our Mother, who gives life to believers. In order to understand her spiritual motherhood, the Church turns her gaze to Her who shed eternal Light on the world: Mary cannot but be present at the rebirth of the children of light, since she, with her fiat, made possible Christ's coming and in him, his Body.

Mother of the baptized in Christ

The miracle of the Spirit in Christ's Incarnation is renewed in a certain sense in the generation of his Mystical Body: Mary is the Mother of Christ, the Head, and the Mother of the members of his Body (cf. Lumen Gentium, 53). St Louis de Montfort writes: «if Jesus Christ is born of Mary, also the elect, who are members of the Head, must as a necessary consequence be born of her» (Treatise on true devotion to the Blessed Virgin, 32).

The subject was also recalled by John Paul II at the Angelus of 12 February 1984: «The blessed Virgin is intimately united to Christ and to the Church, and she is inseparable from one and the other. She is therefore united to them in what constitutes the very essence of the Liturgy: the sacramental celebration of salvation to the glory of God and for the sanctification of man. Mary is present in the memorial - the liturgical action - because she was present at the saving event. She is at every baptismal font, where in faith and in the Holy Spirit the members of the Mystical Body are born to divine life, because with faith and with the power of the Spirit, she conceived its Head, Christ» (in L'Osservatore Romano [English edition], 20 February 1984, p. 10).

The Holy Father's invitation, for this year, to a «renewed appreciation of Baptism» and the «strengthening of faith» (cf TMA, 41-42) can rightly be united to the other: to contemplate Mary «in the mystery of her Divine Motherhood» and as the «model of faith» (cf. TMA, 43). The Virgin Mother's faith lives again in the faith of the Church which baptizes and is a model for Christians in living the gift of baptismal union in Jesus Christ. The Baptismal rite for children contains significant references to Mary, which help us to perceive and show the Mother's presence beside her children, who are born again of water and the Spirit: the invocation to Mary in the litanies; the mention of the Virgin in the profession of faith; the invitation to parents and the community to sing the Magnificat as a hymn of thanksgiving; the discrete suggestion to bring the child «to Our Lady's altar»; the memory of the Mother of the Lord in the words of the final blessing.