by Nicholas Ma
Blessed Jacobus da Varagine, the medieval chronicler and Archbishop of Genoa who compiled the biographies of many saints in the Golden Legend, related an anecdote about Pope St. Gregory I during a 6th century plague which ravaged Rome as COVID-19 afflicts the world today. Pope Gregory ordered a procession through Rome with an icon of the Blessed Mother, Salus Populi Romani (Protectress of the Roman People), which still hangs in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
According to da Varagine, as the procession made its way around the city:
The poisonous uncleanness of the air yielded to the image as if fleeing from it and being unable to withstand its presence: the passage of the picture brought about a wonderful serenity and purity in the air. We are also told the voices of angels were heard around the image singing
Regina Caeli, laetare, alleluia,
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia,
Resurrexit sicut dixit, alleluia!
to which Gregory promptly added:
Ora pro nobis Deum, rogamus alleluia! (Golden Legend, 46, p. 174)
To this day, Regina Caeli is a seasonal Marian antiphon chanted during Eastertide (from Easter Sunday to Pentecost), also prayed three times per day in place of the Angelus. This traditional and sacred antiphon is especially rich with spiritual wisdom given its relative brevity. During our Paschal quarantine season, and especially during May, the Month of Mary, it would be fruitful to pray to our Blessed Mother and meditate on each verse of Regina Caeli.
Regina Caeli, laetare, alleluia (Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia!)
Mary’s queenship can be understood in various aspects. By her marriage to St. Joseph, Mary is wedded into the House of David and thereby conceived of the Son of David, as Christ was first addressed (Matthew 1:1) and as foretold by Isaiah (7:13–14). More importantly, Christ’s heavenly kingship grants Mary her title as Queen of Heaven. Just as Christ sits “at the right hand of the majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3), Mary occupies the role of Queen Mother in accordance with the tradition of Israelite royalty. Bethsabee, mother of King Solomon, had such power and distinction in the royal court at her Son’s right hand, never to be refused by him any request (1 Kings 2:19–20). The deeply intertwined relationship between the request of the queen mother and the will of the king can be seen at the wedding in Cana, where Christ transformed water into wine at His mother’s notice, as the latter commanded the waiters to do as He says (John 2: 1–10). The fundamental reality of Mary’s queenship, hidden during the modesty of her earthly life, is also revealed to John in his vision of the “Woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1) delivering a king “who was to rule all nations with an iron rod” (Revelation 12:5). Therefore, since the fifth century at the Council of Ephesus, the Church has paid homage to Mary as Queen of Heaven.
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia (For He whom thou didst merit to bear, alleluia!)
As discussed above, Mary’s queenship derives from her motherhood of Christ the King. Perhaps, it is then worthwhile to reflect on Mary’s relationship with Christ as Mother of God. As the angel Gabriel announced unto her, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (Luke 1:31). Mary was not a mere surrogate mother. Christ is fully man and fully divine, receiving His flesh from His mother, who conceived Him in her womb. Her body is not a hollow chamber for Christ, but a hallowed tabernacle, a living temple, the new Ark of the Covenant (Revelation 11:19), which bore and nurtured the eternal Word incarnate.
Therefore, this unique, intimate bond between mother and child explains Mary’s perfect sharing of Christ’s will and passion. As such, Simeon prophesied to Mary at the Presentation, “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). The very agony of the cross, of the nails hammered through the Lord’s flesh, of the lance that pierced His side, Mary herself felt, as that same blade pierced her heart and soul. Of all the onlookers on Calvary that Good Friday, Mary grieved the most over Him whom she was merited to bear. Just as she shared her flesh for the Word so that He might enter into the world, she perfectly shared in His agony as He departed the living world.
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia (Hath arisen, as He said, alleluia!)
The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection interestingly never mention the Blessed Mother. One would assume that, with Mary’s utmost significance and relationship with her Son, she would be visited by Him first. That is not to say no such mother-son reunion occurred, as the authors of the Gospels self-admittedly do not offer a complete account of Easter Sunday: “There are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). Nonetheless, it is a pious tradition that Christ secretly visited His mother first. As Church Father St. Ambrose speculated, “Then [the Virgin] Mary saw the resurrection of the Lord, and she was the first to see and believe. Mary Magdalene also saw, although she doubted” (de Virginitate, III, 14).
Regardless if the Blessed Mother saw her risen Son, perhaps such a visit was unnecessary. The witness of the women at the empty tomb, followed by the apostles, were initially ones of near-disbelief and astonishment. Thomas doubted even a week after the Resurrection until he finally saw and felt Christ’s wounds (John 20:19–31). The sorrow of the crucifixion had left all of Christ’s followers hopeless, ignoring His earlier promise that He would “on the third day rise again” (Matthew 16:21). The Virgin Mary, full of grace, having once lost and refound Him three days after the Passover when He was twelve (Luke 2:41–51) and then losing Him again on Calvary, knew best to trust in His return on the third day. The Virgin Mary didn’t need an empty tomb to believe like Mary Magdalene, nor did she need to see and feel Christ’s wounds to believe like Thomas. She knew already, even as He gave up His ghost, that He would rise again.
If she was not visited on Easter morning by her Son, dare I speculate Mary may have received the good news from an angel. It would seem that ancient Church tradition, east and west, hints to such an angelic proclamation to Mary. As mentioned above, Pope St. Gregory supposedly first heard Regina Caeli sung by angels during the procession. The Eastern tradition has a similar hymn, the Paschal Megalynarion in the Divine Liturgy, with the following first lines:
The angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace:
Rejoice, O Pure Virgin!
Again I say: Rejoice!
Thy Son is risen from His three days in the tomb!
Angels did play an active role on Easter Sunday. It was an angel (or two) who rolled the stone from the tomb and first announced to Mary Magdalene and the other accompanying women that Christ is risen (Matthew 28: 1–7, Mark 16:5–7, Luke 24:4–7, John 20:12–13). And how fitting is it that an angel would announce to Mary her Son’s return to the world of the living, just as an angel had first announced to her that she would deliver Him into the world. This parallel is further strengthened by the language of Gabriel’s Annunciation: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee” (Luke 1:28). As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI points out, the original Greek translated to “hail” is χαίρε, meaning “rejoice” (The Infancy Narratives, p. 26), just as the first lines of “Regina Caeli” and “The Angel Cried” calls for the Queen of Heaven to rejoice. And it is likely that, just as she sorrowed the most on Good Friday, Mary rejoiced the most on Easter Sunday before all of creation.
Ora pro nobis deum, alleluia (Pray for us to God)
Mary’s role in God’s plan for salvation is not limited to her relationship with Christ but rather extends to her relationship with us as Mother of the Church. Christ alone is the perfect and principal mediator between God and humanity, bringing Himself directly in union with us through His sacrifice on the Cross. However it is Mary who has given her Son for all of humanity. On the Cross, He not only gave Himself for our salvation, but also His mother to safeguard our souls, and us to the Blessed Mother as her new children (John 19:26–27). As Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, and Mother of the Church, Mary intercedes on our behalf through her prayers to God. The brief intercession of our mother on the wedding feast of Cana (John 2: 1–10) is but a glimpse of the Queen of Heaven’s intercession for our souls at the eternal wedding feast of Heaven (Luke 14:7–14; Psalm 44(45)). And it is ever more fitting why we pray for her intercession, especially amidst the suffering and horror of this pandemic, that our petitions to the Queen of Heaven would not be refused by the King of Kings.
And so, with Pope St. Gregory’s utterance of the last line, the pope “saw an angel of the Lord standing atop the castle of Cresentius, wiping a bloody sword and sheathing it. Gregory understood that that put an end to the plague” (Golden Legend, 46, p. 174). About 15 centuries later, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, called upon the protection of Mary against COVID-19 during his extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing on Friday, March 27 of this year. In front of the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica, overlooking the Holy Father and an empty St. Peter’s Square as rain poured down in the darkness, stood Salus Populi Romani, the same Marian icon that St. Gregory carried. Pope Francis venerated that icon for a few moments before delivering the benediction, as well as at the conclusion of the Easter Vigil in a mostly-empty St. Peter’s Basilica while the choir chanted Regina Caeli.
In these times when the faithful remain quarantined behind shut doors, unable to receive the risen Lord, perhaps challenged and doubting in faith like Thomas, let us turn to Mary for her intercession as we approach her month of May. Though churches across the world remain empty, so too was Christ’s tomb on the Resurrection. And though countless lives have passed away during this pandemic, the empty tomb dares us to shout, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). Therefore, let us rejoice this Eastertide as Mary did on the Resurrection. She need not see His wounds, for she had faith, grace, and perfect spiritual communion with God, exemplifying Christ’s admonishment to His doubting disciple, “blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed” (John 20:29). Let us also remain firm in faith, though we do not see behind our shut doors, and desire one day to receive His True Body again.