The Easter Vigil with the Queen of Heaven
April 21, 2012
The Easter Vigil with the Queen of Heaven
Homily for the Easter Vigil Religious Sisters of Mercy, Domus Guadalupe 7 April 2012 + J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Irresistibly, as we have contemplated the mysteries of the Passion of Christ in Mary’s company, our attention has been drawn to the mystery of his Holy Nativity. As Blessed John Paul wrote, “No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary” (John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §10). Why? Because “in a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance which points to an even greater spiritual closeness” (ibid.). As we sang at Christmas, “O that birth forever blessed, / When the Virgin full of grace, /By the Holy Ghost conceiving,/ Bore the Savior of our race; / And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, / First revealed his sacred face, / Evermore and evermore” (Prudentius, Of the Father’s Love Begotten). As tonight we sing, not Stabat Mater Dolorosa but Regina coeli laetare, Alleluia, we cannot fail to notice that the next lines of the antiphon recall precisely her divine maternity to identify the Risen One: Quia quem meruisti portare, Alleluia / Resurrexit sicut dixit, Alleluia. Our Lady’s “gaze of sorrow” is now “transformed into a gaze radiant with the joy of the Resurrection”(John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 10) because it is the face of one formed in her womb upon which the glory of the resurrection now blazes forth. In the glorious face of her Risen Son, Mary can still see the face of her infant son lying in her arms on the night of his birth. So can we, as she draws us into the depths of these mysteries. A pious Jewish maiden, Mary would have been familiar not only with the texts of the Old Testament we have heard tonight, but the whole array of prophecy and tradition that announce the identity and mission of the child who is the Savior of the world. Tonight we have listened to these texts with her ears. At Christmas we sang: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, / Nor thorns infest the ground; / He comes to make his blessings flow / Far as the curse is found” (Isaac Watts, Joy to the World). Tonight we sang the Exsultet which recalls this whole complex web of prefiguration and typology apart from which the mysteries we have celebrated in these days would be unintelligible: the redemption that ransomed sinful Adam and the prefiguration of this redemption from the creation of the world (the Passover lamb, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire). This is the night when we receive salvation and Christ thus fulfils his destiny. Our Lady in some sense discerned all this from the beginning, and her faith and wisdom unfolded with the passing years as she came to an ever deeper knowledge of her Son. Surely she must have felt some premonition of the future ordeal of the Passion that saves us in the very chill and hardship of the circumstances surrounding his birth—“In the bleak mid-winter / Frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone; / Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / In the bleak mid-winter / Long ago” (Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holtz, In the Bleak Mid-winter). The tradition of Christmas song demonstrates an uncanny intuition of Mary’s prophetic sense of what the future would hold for her Son. And after the death of Jesus, Mary receives his body into her arms as he is taken down from the cross. Perhaps she participates in the preparation of his body for burial. As John’s Gospel records, Joseph of Arimathea is assisted by Nicodemus who brings aloes and myrrh, according to Jewish custom, to be folded into the white linen burial cloth. No swaddling clothes this time, but a burial cloth instead. Perhaps at that moment Our Lady recalls the visit of the Wise Men from the East whose precious aromatic gifts would now find their previously hidden meaning. “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone cold tomb” (John Henry Hopkins, We Three Kings of Orient Are). In Mary’s gaze, the face of the infant Christ blends with the face of the suffering Christ and the face of the Risen Christ. For those who seek to imitate the contemplative gaze of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mysteries of Christ are always celebrated in the present tense and their deepest meanings interpenetrate and coexist with one another. Thus it is that Christmas carols come to mind in the midst of our celebrations of the Paschal Mystery. One of the most beautiful of all Easter “carols” refers to Christmas in its second line. Regina coeli laetare / Quia quem meruisti portare. The author of this wonderful antiphon is unknown, and, though it is identified with the Franciscan liturgical tradition, there is a beautiful legend that St. Gregory the Great—as he followed barefoot in procession with St. Luke’s icon of Mary—heard angels singing the first lines, and added what would become the antiphon’s concluding line: “Ora pro nobis Deum, Alleluia.” “Queen of Heaven” is clearly an Easter title. Not Ave Maria, but Regina coeli laetare—not hail but rejoice—becomes our greeting for Mary. Easter has made her what we hope to be as well. As we pray in the preface for the feast of the Assumption: “The virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven to be the beginning and the image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people”—that is, to us. Our Lady is the first one to share in the resurrection of her Son, the first fruits, as it were, of Easter: assumed into heaven and now reigning as Queen of Heaven. But the Regina coeli teaches us that the Queen of Heaven is first of all the Mother who held in her arms the Savior of the world. “Angels and archangels / May have gathered there, / Cherubim and seraphim / Thronged the air; / But only his Mother / In her maiden bliss, / Worshiped the Beloved / With a kiss” (In the Bleak Mid-Winter.) O God, may we who in this season have received the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ, through her intercession, cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace. (Roman Missal, alternate collect, Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent, slightly altered). [Image source: Fra Angelico, “The Coronation of the Virgin,” Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.]