I will certainly go with you,” she replied, “but you will not gain glory for the expedition on which you are setting out, for it is into a woman’s power that the LORD is going to sell Sisera. Judges 4:9
The title of this reflection, “Mary, Mother of God, we salute you” was language chosen with great care by St. Saint Cyril of Alexandria for his great homily delivered at the Council of Ephesus, 431, a homily honoring Mary as the Theotokos, Mother of God, her greatest title, which was confirmed at that council. Every August 5th, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates that event indirectly in the feast of the Dedication of the basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Ephesus, and Pope Sixtus III built it precisely to commemorate that council’s honoring of Mary as the Mother of God.
The beautiful homily of St. Cyril is part of the office of this feast, and his language honoring Mary is the most eloquent perhaps ever written. He begins by hailing Mary with language he must have been familiar with from the Roman historian, Seutonius who in his De Vita Caesarum handed down these words from the gladiators addressed to the Emperor before combat: “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant” – “Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.” The great Roman Emperors were also wildly saluted, hailed, by the Roman public as they returned from great military conquests in triumphal processions.
Moreover, Cyril uses this greeting, we salute you, immediately following his salutation to the Holy Trinity: “Therefore, holy and incomprehensible Trinity, we salute you …” First he salutes God, but then immediately and in the very same language, he salutes Mary as Mother of God:
- “Mary, Mother of God, we salute you. Precious vessel, worthy of the whole world’s reverence, you are an ever shining light, the crown of virginity, the symbol of orthodoxy, an indestructible temple, the place that held him whom who place can contain, mother and virgin. Because of you the holy gospels could say: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
We salute you, for in your holy womb he, who is beyond all limitation, was confined.”
Then Cyril goes on to enumerate all the reasons Mary is saluted, all with the introductory words “because of you” which is his way of inserting Mary into the plan of redemption in the most powerful and intimate way.
- “Because of you the holy Trinity is glorified and adored; the cross is called precious and is venerated throughout the world; the heavens exult; the angels and archangels make merry; demons are put to flight; the devil that tempter, is trust down from heaven; the fallen race of man is taken up on high; all creatures possessed by the madness of idolatry have attained knowledge of the truth; believers receive holy baptism; the oil of gladness is poured out; the Church is established throughout the world; pagans are brought to repentance.”
And them Cyril goes on as if he cannot stop praising the Mother of God with the most powerful acclamations of what happened because of her, of her fiat of course:
- What more is there to say? Because of you the light of the only-begotten Son of God has shone upon those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death; prophets pronounced the word of God; the apostles preached salvation to the Gentiles; the dead are raised to life, and kings rule by the power of the holy Trinity.
Who can put Mary’s high honor into words? She is both mother and virgin. I am overwhelmed by the wonder of this miracle. Of course no one could be prevented from living in the house he had built for himself, yet who would invite mockery by asking his own servant to become his mother?
Behold then the joy of the whole universe. Let the union of God and man in the Son of the Virgin Mary fill us with awe and adoration. Let us fear and worship the undivided Trinity as we sing the praise of the ever-virgin Mary, the holy temple of God, and of God himself, her Son and spotless Bridegroom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The words of St. Cyril make the more modern, emotional and sentimental tributes to Mary pale in comparison with this doctrinal salutation. Mary is not only the New Eve, but in a sense she is also the new Deborah, who leads her children into spiritual battle. You recall Deborah, the Judge, who led Israel into battle when Barak, the general, was fearful to fight Sisera and the Canaanite army. Deborah agrees to accompany the army but declares to Barak, “I will certainly go with you, but you will not gain glory for the expedition on which you are setting out, for it is into a woman’s power that the LORD is going to sell Sisera. Indeed it is another woman Jael who actually kills Sisera who flees to her tent.
Is not Mary the great triumphant hero who not only was united with her Son’s mission but who leads the Church into spiritual combat down through the centuries. When Church leaders are hesitant or fearful, is it not Mary who comes to the forefront and leads the way to victory (recall Lepanto for instance). She is the pillar of Orthodoxy who saves the day when heretical attacks are made on her Son and His Church (such as at Ephesus). How fitting to greet Mary as the conquering hero, subordinate to God her Son of course, but nonetheless chosen by God for this great glory as Deborah in the Old Testament was chosen.
We live in an age and culture in our day, in ”a country that consumes its inhabitants” as the Mass reading from Numbers says today, and unfortunately we have rather timid Church leaders, for the most part. But of course our hope is ultimately not primarily in Churchmen, but in Mary and her Son, who ride together and inseparably into the Kingdom to the salutations of the People of God. “Hail Mary; Hail Son of the Most High. We who are about to die, salute Thee.”
Categories: Weekday reflections