Friday, September 02, 2022

Celebrating Latter Marymass, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Nativity of Mary, anonymous, 17th century
Lost in Translation #77

The Blessed Virgin Mary is one of only three people whose earthly birthday (as opposed to their heavenly birthday into eternal bliss) is celebrated liturgically by the universal Church, the other two being Saint John the Baptist (June 24) and, of course, Jesus Christ (December 25).

All that we know of Mary’s birth comes to us from apocryphal literature, writings that were deemed by the Church not to be divinely inspired Sacred Scripture. “Apocryphal,” however, does not mean worthless, and the early Church made good use of these pseudo-Gospels. In these writings, Saints Anne and Joachim are a childless elderly couple who prayed to God for offspring and were rewarded with a daughter whom they named Miriam (Mary).
A feast in honor of Mary’s birth was first kept in Syria and Palestine in the fifth century, where it was then adopted by the Greeks and finally (some time around the eighth or ninth century) by the West. The feast spread slowly in the Latin Church, but by the twelfth century it was a major Marian feast and a holy day of obligation (until 1918, in fact). September 8 was chosen as the date because it was the anniversary of the dedication of a Marian church in Jerusalem. The feast so dominated the medieval and early modern imagination that it was sometimes called Latter Marymass -- since Assumption Day on August 15 was the first “Mary Mass” of the season, and so Mary’s birthday was seen as the “later Mary Mass" - at least before the institution of the feast of the Seven Sorrows on September 15.
Grapes, Cattle, and Swallows
September 8 also roughly marks the transition from summer to fall. In the wine regions of France, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin became the time for harvest wine festivals. Vine-growers bring their best grapes to church for a blessing and attach some of these first fruits to a statue of the Blessed Virgin. A festive meal is then held during which the grapes are consumed. In the Alps, the Abtrieb or “down-driving” of cattle and sheep from the summer pastures begins on this day. The lead animals are decorated with flowers in honor of the Virgin as they wind their way down from the high slopes to their winter quarters. And according to the Austrians, the swallows also begin their southern migration on this day.
Blessing of Seeds and Seedlings
But the most universal custom on our Lady’s Nativity is the blessing of seeds and seedlings for the autumn planting season. The Roman Ritual contains a beautiful double blessing for the occasion.
Dómine sancte, Pater omnípotens, sempiterne Deus: pétimus ac rogámus, ut hos fructus ségetum ac séminum tuis serénis óculis hilaríque vultu aspícere dignéris: et sicut testátus es Móysi fámulo tuo in terra Ægypti, dicens: Dic filiis Israël, cum ingressi fúerint terram promissiónis, quam eis dabo, ut primitias frúctuum suórum ófferant sacerdótibus, et erunt benedicti; sic et nos rogámus te, Dómine, ut per auxilium misericordiæ tuæ emittas super hunc fructum ségetum déxteræ tuæ benedictiónem, quem ad exhibendum proferre dignéris, ut non súbruat grando, nec áëris inundatio extérminet, sed semper incólumis permáneat, propter usum animárum et córporum, et ad bene abundantem et pleníssimam maturitátem perdúcere dignéris: Qui in Trinitáte perfecta vivis et regnas in sǽcula sæculórum. Amen.
Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, cælestis verbi seminátor et cultor, qui nostri cordis áream spiritálibus rastris exerces: adesto propitius précibus nostris, et super agros, quibus si fúerint sémina ínsita, tuam largam benedictiónem infunde, ac ab eis omnem vim procellárum gratia tuæ defensiónis averte; ut omnis hic fructus et tua benedictióne repleátur et ad hórrea sine impedimento perveniat. Per Dóminum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum: Qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitáte Spíritus Sancti Deus, per omnia sǽcula sæculórum. Amen.
Which I translate as:
Holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God: we request and we beseech that Thou wouldst deign to look upon these seedling fruits and seeds with cheerful eyes and a merry countenance. And as Thou didst promise to Thy servant Moses, saying, “Say unto the children of Israel, ‘When you shall have entered into the land which I will give you, that they may offer their first fruits to the priests, they will be blessed,’” so too, we beseech Thee, Lord, that through the help of Thy mercy Thou wouldst send upon this seedling fruit, which Thou hast deigned to bring forth for the harvest, the blessing of Thy right hand. May it not be crushed by hail or drowned by a flood of rain, but may it ever remain safe and sound for the use of soul and body, and mayest Thou deign to bring it well to full and abundant maturity. Thou who livest and reignest in perfect Trinity unto ages of ages. Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God, Sower and Cultivator of the heavenly Word, who tillest the topsoil of our hearts with spiritual rakes: kindly be present to our prayers, and pour fourth Thy abundant blessing upon the fields in which these seeds are to be planted, and by the grace of Thy defense turn away from them the violence of storms: that each of these fruits may be filled with Thy blessing, and may reach the granaries without hindrance. Through our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God unto ages of ages. Amen. 
They are sprinkled with holy water, and, if possible, incensed. [Rituale Romanum (Rome, 1943), pp. 589-590.]
The first prayer beseeches God “to look upon these seedling fruits and seeds with cheerful eyes and a merry countenance.” It is one of the most charming petitions in the Latin liturgical tradition. The prayer goes on to link the current practice of blessing seeds and seedlings to the Old Testament feast of First Fruits or Shavuot (Lev. 23, 9-14). Finally, it concludes with a rare ending: “Thou who livest and reignest in perfect Trinity unto ages of ages.” The phrase “In perfect Trinity” appears only one other time in the Ritual (in a blessing for gold, frankincense, and myrrh on the Epiphany) and only one time in the 1962 Missal (in the blessing of candles on the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary). In the Ritual, the conclusion is used in prayers addressed to the Father, and in the Missal it is used in a prayer addressed to the Son.
The second prayer artfully correlates the mechanics of planting with God’s activity on our souls by addressing Him as the “Sower and Cultivator of the heavenly Word” who tills “the topsoil of our hearts with spiritual rakes” (another charming, almost campy, image). The prayer also covers its bases. While the first blessing focuses on seeds and seedlings, the second asks for a blessing of the fields in which they will be planted. There is no point in having healthy seeds or sprouts if they are going to get cut down in a hostile environment.
The Birth of the Virgin, by Andreas Herrlein (1738-1817); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The two prayers combined are thus highly practical, but they are also a nice example of Christian “mysticism,” by which I mean an awareness of the mystical or hidden meaning of our ordinary, everyday lives. The first prayer reflects what Aquinas calls the “allegorical sense” of the sacred text, which sees practices in the Old Testament as a type or foreshadowing of the practices of the New Covenant (in this case, Shavuot is a type, and the blessing of seeds is a sort of anti-type.) The second prayer is an instance of the “ moral sense,” in which an ordinary activity like planting or raking is seen as a sacramentum or divine sign of a spiritual reality. In addition to blessing seeds and fields, the two prayers together are a veritable catechism in how to read reality with a robust Christian imagination.
Finally, aside from the agricultural timing, it is appropriate that we ask almighty God for blessings on the beginnings of new life in field and garden on the holy day that honors the Mother of God as a tiny newborn. And just as many of us today have a heightened sense of the fragility of the planet and the health of our seeds and fields, so too may we have a heightened sense of the need to protect unborn life.

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