Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Second Sunday after Epiphany—17 January A.D. 2010

“Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”

 Wedding at Cana

Ordinary of the Mass
Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English

    Up until the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan[1] in 313 AD—say from the crucifixion of Our Lord in 33 AD, up until that time—Christianity was a very persecuted religion.  In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the Church was first persecuted by the Jews—the book ends with Paul being taken to Rome, where both he and Peter would be martyred by the Emperor Nero.  The last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, was written by Saint John toward the end of the first century to comfort the Churches of the East that were undergoing persecution.  We have numerous historical references to the martyrdom of the early Church.

    In some cases, the Roman persecution was successful in getting Christians to deny their Faith, to desecrate the Sacred Scriptures, and even to offer sacrifice to the pagan “gods.”  Apostasy was, after all, a way to stay alive, or to keep one’s family alive.  Curiously, there were also people who did not actually give up the Faith, but who paid Roman officials to issue a certificate (libellus) falsely testifying that they had in fact submitted to the test of their loyalty to the “gods.”[2]    Both groups were counted among the “lapsi,” those who had “lapsed” from the Faith.  Both those who had actually submitted, and those “libellatici” who purchased false papers were considered by the Church to be among the most serious sinners.

    If this appears extreme, consider the fact that most of the early Christians were extremely good Christians, completely convinced of the need to follow all of the dictates of the Faith.  With the severe persecution going on there would be few or none who belonged to the Church half-heartedly, for social or business connections—those connections were found only among the pagans.  The greatest sin and the greatest scandal was the terribly bad example of betraying Jesus Christ.

    For this reason, the early Church was extremely stern in denying the Sacraments to those who had denied the faith (or made believe that they had, using false papers).  Saints Cornelius, Pope of Rome, and Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, themselves both martyred for the Faith around 250 AD, carried on a lively correspondence about the possibility of receiving the lapsed back into the Church.  Saint Cyprian was a bit more rigorous, permitting absolution only at the hour of death—Pope Cornelius was a bit more generous—but both agreed that contrite apostates should be absolved only after a long and difficult penance.  To do otherwise would be to encourage more people to deny the Faith during future persecutions.

    There was, however, one way in which the repentant might be admitted more easily to the Communion of the Church—that was be seeking the intercession of the martyrs.  Martyrdom usually followed judicial procedure—a Christian had to be convicted and sentenced before he could be executed—normally this took some time.  Those who were to be martyred were clearly to be numbered among the saints in heaven in the very near future, but while they were still in prison awaiting execution, a lapsed Catholic might be able to get to see one of them and beg for the martyr’s intercession.  The martyr-to-be could choose to issue a document of his own (also called a “libellus,” but one of peace—“libellus pacis”), asking the bishop to grant an indulgence to penitent, based on the merits that the martyr would gain for himself.

    The intercession of the martyrs thus came to be sought by the penitents, and the faithful alike, even after the death of the martyr, when he could no longer be approached in person, but only in prayer.  A brief while later, the custom was extended to praying for the intercession of others who died natural deaths after living heroically holy lives—generically called the “confessors,” not because they heard Confessions, but because they publicly and notably “confessed the Faith.”  Their number included men and women, clergy and laity.  And, as we know well today, the intercession of the saints was invoked for any number of personal needs.

    Patron saints came to be designated on the theory that one who had been a baker or a candle-stick maker in life would have a certain sympathy for the bakers and candle-stick makers who brought their needs to him.  Likewise, those who had suffered the various maladies of life would be sympathetic to those with the same maladies.

    But even before it became customary to pray to the martyrs and the confessors, there is one saint already acknowledged as a sort of universal patroness.  I mean, of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother who had brought the God-man into human life.  Mary was known to have been taken up to heaven, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life.  She was the Mother of God, to whom her divine Son would refuse nothing good.  At Pentecost, many of the Jewish monks that followed in the steps of the Prophet Elias, the “Sons of the prophets,” were converted to the Catholic Faith.  They had the opportunity to meet the Divine Mother and to converse with her before returning to Mount Carmel, where they and those who came after them invoked the intercession f the Blessed Virgin while praying in what is most likely the first chapel erected in her honor.[3]

    Mary was, after all, the woman who prevailed upon her Son to work his first miracle.  Notice that it was not the bridal couple who went to Jesus with their problem of being out of wine.  Indeed, they did not even have to ask Mary, for she is perceptive and saw their difficulty, perhaps even before they knew of it themselves.  Our Lord was not particularly impressed with their problem:  “Woman, what is that to Me and to thee?   My hour has not yet come.”[4]  But you will also notice that she was completely undeterred by this seeming rebuff.  She did not waste even one word with Jesus, but turned to the waiters and told them to do whatever Jesus said for them to do.  And the wine was not just passable, but the finest that the chief-steward had ever tasted.

    Mary was the one who brought the incarnate God into the world, the one who nursed Him at the breast, the one who raised Him from infancy to manhood, the one who stood by Him at the Cross, the first to join Him bodily in heaven.  He will not refuse her when she asks Him to do good for those who honor her and call upon her.  Indeed, like the bridal couple at Cana, those who are sons and daughters of Mary can trust that she will know their problems, perhaps even before they do.

“Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”


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