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May 08, 2013
Alma Redemptoris Mater
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Gustave Reese, the pre-eminent Medieval and Renaissance musicologist of his day (d 1977), was also famous for striking fear in his students if they came to class unprepared. A simple composition demanded historical and textual analysis with biographical information about its composer. An even closer probe was required into its musical setting and its variants in regional manuscripts. Reese’s students would master the art of interdisciplinary scholarship, or withdraw from his course.

There was one exception to Reese’s grueling pedagogy. All analysis came to a halt with the Marian chant, Alma Redemptoris Mater. Flinging off his glasses, he would unabashedly swoon, “This, my dear students, is a honey of a piece!”

The Loveliest Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys (Song of Songs 2:1)

May belongs to Mary and to the ideal of motherhood. As Mother’s Day approaches, it is appropriate to fix our gaze on the Theotokos, the woman who bore the Incarnate Word of God.

In Washington’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, one Lady Chapel after another represents various countries in their depictions of this loveliest of women holding her Child, each garbed in ethnic clothing. Pilgrim sites in her honor dot the globe. Whether in literature, architecture, iconography, painting, statuary, or in music, the sacred arts praising Mary flower in full bloom. Artists cannot sculpt enough, paint enough, write and sing enough of her. In fact, there are approximately 15,000 hymns directed or addressed to Mary, and many of these have been based on some 4,000 original Marian poems composed in Latin. More often than not, they are presented as hymns in honor of the Incarnation, as does the Alma Redemptoris Mater

J.S. Bach highlights this fact in the Credo of his B Minor Mass. He uses a musical motif that hovers over the Latin text, “Et incarnatus est” symbolizing the descent of the Spirit on Mary. “Blessed among women,” Mary shines among the anawim about whom Jesus later speaks in the Sermon on the Mount. Mary is the first model of discipleship in the New Testament. 

Mary and Islam

Not only revered in the universal Catholic Church, Mary is also greatly honored in the Islamic tradition which values the Virgin Birth of Jesus as one of God’s miracles. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran. This woman, Miriam, is a bridge between Islam and Christianity, a fact that should encourage Marian and Islamic scholars to pursue in dialogue. It cannot come soon enough.

Mary and the anawim

The anawim of the Old Testament were the poor of every sort: the vulnerable, the marginalized, and socio-economically oppressed, those of lowly status without earthly power (Jerome Biblical Commentary, 14:11; 18:3, 10; 22:41, 48; 51:21; 59:10; 19:61). In fact, they depended totally on God. In times of suffering, they remained faithful and awaited the good things of the Lord to fill their emptiness (Lk 1:53). Is there any doubt that Mary was the first Mater Dolorosa?

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola presents the tableau of the Incarnation for prayer. The Father, Son, and Spirit see and hear the world going down in ruin, down to the smallest detail, and they determine to bring about its redemption. Observing Mary’s life of faith, they single her out for a special role in the divine plan.  But Mary is already betrothed to Joseph, and when God’s plan is put to her, she asks how it will happen.  Despite this apparent obstacle, Mary’s free acceptance allows the Spirit to work in her. In proclaiming the Magnificat, she acknowledges that the Almighty has done great things for her in her lowliness in contrast to God’s dealings with the proud.

Alma Redemptoris Mater: The Hymn and the Encyclical

Alma Redemptoris Mater can be chanted or recited at any time of year in the Liturgy of the Hours, but especially at Compline (Night Prayer) during the Advent-Christmas season.  Having originated in the eleventh century, it is mentioned several times in Chaucer’s “The Prioress’ Tale” in Canterbury Tales.  The melody must have been popular at the time. The Latin and English text are given below:

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia coeli
Loving Mother of the Redeemer,

Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Gate of heaven, star of the sea, assist your people

Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
(Those) who have fallen yet strive to rise again.

Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem,
To the wonderment of nature, you bore your Creator,

Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore,
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting, yet remained a virgin after as before.

Sumens illud ave, peccatorum miserere.
Have pity on us poor sinners.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II promulgated the encyclical Redemptoris Mater.  The theme of Mary’s pilgrimage in faith and her divine motherhood run throughout the piece. She is the one woman who, always and everywhere, inspires total faith, individual and communal. Her story is ours as well. St. Anselm, Doctor of the Church and Archbishop of Canterbury (12th c), offers soaring prose about the Mother of the Word Incarnate in relation and juxtaposition to God the Father:

Through Mary, God made himself a Son,
not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary.
The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary.
God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God.
The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary,
and thus he made his own creation.
He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined created without Mary.

 (From a sermon by St. Anselm, Office of Reading, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Liturgy of the Hours I, 1229.)

The liturgical chant, simple, beautiful, and accessible for all to sing is lovelier still on Mother’s Day:

Mary the Dawn, Christ the perfect Day;
Mary the Gate, Christ the Heavnly Way!
Mary the Root, Christ, the Mystic Vine;
Mary the Grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
May the Wheat-Sheaf, Christ the Living Bread
Mary the Rose-Tree, Christ the Rose-Blood-red.
Mary the Font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the Chalice, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the Temple, Christ the Temple’s Lord;
Mary the Shrine, Christ the God adored.
Mary the Beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the Mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the Mother, Christ the Mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run.

“Credentials,” a poem by Daniel Berrigan, S.J., describes the essence of a rose and the loveliest rose God ever made:

So the rose is its own credential, a certain
unattainable form: wearing its heart visibly,     
it gives us heart too: bud, fulness and fall.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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