Marian Feasts

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Although Marian liturgical cult appeared at mid-5th century, it was slow in growth and gained momentum only at the end of the 7th.


Marian devotion originated very early; for prayers to Mary, such as the Sub tuum of Greek origin, were already known in Egypt in the 3rd century, and some paintings of her and the Child in the Roman catacombs date probably from the middle of the 2nd century. This devotion, however, was not at first accompanied by liturgical worship. When, at the end of the 4th century, the anniversary celebrations for martyrs and bishops began to multiply, there was still no feast of the Blessed Virgin. The reason for this was the fact of the assumption. No church claimed possession of her tomb, and at that time veneration of the saints started only at their tombs.

Beginnings of Liturgical Cult. During the 4th century, however, veneration of Mary discreetly entered the liturgical year because of Christmas. This feast, introduced at Rome toward the middle of the 4th century, commemorates not only the Savior's birth but also the virginal maternity of Mary. This theme held an important place in the 13 Christmas sermons of St. augustine, for example. Moreover, St. Augustine insisted on it because the perpetual virginity of Mary had been denied by Helvidius and Jovinian at the end of the 4th century. This apologetic concern, as well as the desire to present Mary as a model for consecrated virgins, led preachers in their Christmas sermons to accentuate Mary's role and the privilege of her virginity. In the latter part of the 5th century, i.e., after the Council of ephesus (431) had defined the divine maternity, a liturgical commemoration of the mother of god appeared in many places. Its date varied, but generally it was close to Christmas: December 18 in Spain; January 18 in Gaul; January 1, the octave of Christmas, in Rome. The Marian Mass at Rome was composed of the Introit Vultum tuum, the Epistle Sir 24.1113, 1520, the Gradual Diffusa est, the Gospel Mt 13.4452, and the Communion Simile est (taken from the Gospel). The first Marian feast was therefore a feast of the divine maternity of Mary. And since, at that time, Christmas celebrated the manifestation of the Son of God, who came to save the world, more than the birth of the Child Jesus, the Marian feast honored Mary especially as the Mother of the Savior, as the one through whom salvation came to the human race.

The Ancient Feasts. Until the middle of the 7th century the West does not seem to have known any other Marian feast than this commemoration of the Mother of God. Sometime between the pontificate of Theodore I (642649) and that of Sergius I (687701), the feasts of the Assumption and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary were introduced. These feasts, of Oriental origin, were brought to Rome by those Christian communities that had been banished from the East by the Muslims.

Assumption of Mary (August 15). This feast comes from Jerusalem. In the Old Armenian Lectionary (early 5th century) modeled on the Jerusalem Lectionary for August 15, the title is "Day of Mary, Mother of God." And the readings indicated there are: Is 7.1015 (the Emmanuel prophecy), Gal 3.294.7 (which contains the phrase "God sent His Son born of a woman"), and Lk2.17 (the Nativity). Therefore, the first feast for August 15, undoubtedly instituted after the Council of Ephesus in 431, celebrated the divine maternity. At the beginning of the 6th century it was transformed into a feast of the Dormitio. Toward 600 a decree from the Emperor Maurice extended this feast to the whole Byzantine Empire. Shortly after 650 it was accepted at Rome, where it was generally called the feast of the Assumption. From Rome it spread in the Westnot, however, without having to surmount certain obstacles, notably in Gaul, where Mary's eminent glory was readily admitted but also where the basis for the affirmation of her corporeal Assumption was not clearly seen. Following the definition of the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, the Mass on August 15 was given a new formulary that explicitly celebrates Mary's Assumption and the power of her intercession.

Nativity of Mary (September. 8). This feast, witnessed to in the East by Romanos Melodos toward 550, appeared at Rome shortly before the pontificate of Sergius I, but it spread somewhat slowly in the West. The date, September 8, is that of the dedication of a Marian church in Jerusalem. The object of the feast is the eternal predestination and the "blessing" of her who one day would become the Mother of the Son of God rather than Mary's birth itself.

Presentation of Mary (November 21). According to the Proto-Gospel of James, an apocrypha without value, Mary was supposed to have been led to the temple in Jerusalem at the age of 3 to be consecrated to the service of the Lord. Despite this purely legendary basis, the Feast of the Presentation has been celebrated in the Christian East since the 6th century in connection with the dedication of the church of St. Mary the New in Jerusalem. It was introduced in the West at a late date and rather hesitatingly; conceded to the Franciscans in 1371 by Gregory XI, it became quite widespread in the 15th century. Although suppressed by Pius V, it was reestablished and extended to the whole Church by Sixtus V in 1585. The object of this feast, precious to Christian piety, is Mary herself as the true temple where God dwells rather than the legendary fact of the Presentation.

Modern Feasts. Whereas the ancient Marian feasts were of Oriental origin and commemorate the essential facts of Mary's life, the object of almost every feast instituted in the West since the 12th century is one of Mary's attributes or the commemoration of some marvelous intervention. The feasts arose and developed, in most cases, under the influence of the medieval religious orders or of private devotion.

Immaculate Conception. Since the 8th century the East has known a feast called "the conception of Ann," celebrating the miracle, related by the Apocrypha, of Ann conceiving Mary after a long sterility. However, the feast did not long endure in the West. The Western feast of the immaculate conception appeared in England in the 12th century. It was promoted by some spiritual writers, such as the English monk Eadmer, but energetically opposed by others, such as SS. Bernard and Thomas Aquinas, who deemed such a privilege to be irreconcilable with the doctrine of universal redemption. It was only in 1476 that Sixtus IV introduced the feast at Rome; at the same time he ordered the composition of a new formulary for the Mass and Office. In 1708 Clement XI extended the feast to the whole Church. Finally, in 1863, nine years after the definition of the dogma, Pius IX promulgated the Office and Mass formulary for the feast, celebrated on December 8.

Queenship of Mary. This feast was instituted by Pius XII in 1954 "so that all may more clearly recognize and more zealously venerate the kind and maternal rule of the Mother of God" [Ad Caeli Reginam, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 46 (1954) 639]. This idea of Mary's royalty is already expressed in the Feast of the Assumption. Originally, this feast was celebrated on May 31. The 1969 reform of the liturgical calendar transferred the feast to August 22.

Visitation. Already in the 8th century the Roman liturgy commemorated the mystery of the visitation on Friday of the Advent Embertide. The feast, originally celebrated on July 2, celebrated by the Franciscans since 1263, was extended to the whole Church by Boniface IX in 1401. A revised Mass formulary was approved by Clement VIII in 1608. The 1969 revision of the liturgical calendar transferred the feast to May 31.

Immaculate Heart of Mary. Since the beginning of the 19th century, certain dioceses had celebrated a feast of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. After having consecrated the world to the immaculate heart of mary in 1942, Pius XII instituted the feast in 1944 and set its celebration on the octave of the Assumption. Originally celebrated on August 22, the 1969 reform of the Roman Calendar transferred the feast to the Saturday after Pentecost Sunday.

Seven Sorrows of Mary. Celebrated on September 15, this feast has been celebrated by the servites since the 17th century. After his return from captivity in France, Pius VII extended it to the universal Church in 1814 in memory of the sufferings he had endured.

Our Lady of the Rosary. This feast was already celebrated on October 7 at the end of the 15th century by some confraternities of the Rosary. Its wide diffusion was due initially to the fact that Pius V ordered the feast to be solemnized in thanksgiving for victory over the Turks at lepanto (Oct. 7, 1571). It was extended to the universal Church by Clement XI (1716) after Prince Eugene's victory at Peterwardein.

The Revised Roman Calendar (1969)

In the revised Roman Calendar (1969) there are 13 Marian feasts included for universal observance. The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1), restores the octave day of Christmas to its original character as a Marian celebration. Two other Marian feasts rank as solemnities: the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and the Assumption (August 15). The Birth of Mary (September8) and the Visitation (May 31) now rank as feasts. The Queenship of Mary (August 22), Our Lady of Sorrows (September 15), Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7), and the Presentation of Mary (November 21) are celebrated as obligatory memorials. Four Marian feasts remain on the universal calendar as optional memorials: Immaculate Heart of Mary (Saturday after Pentecost), Our Lady of Mount carmel (July 16), Our Lady of lourdes (February 11), Dedication of St. Mary Major (August 5).

In the past, popular piety celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and the Presentation (February2) as Marian feasts. The revised Roman Calendar stresses these feasts as primarily celebrations of the Lord in which Mary as His Mother is intimately associated. The full titles of the two feasts indicate their non-Marian character: Annunciation of the Lord, Presentation of the Lord (formerly called the Purification of Mary).

The particular liturgical calendar for the United States includes one additional Marian feast: Our Lady of guadalupe (December 12). It ranks as an obligatory memorial. The Proper for this feast was approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 1973.

According to the general norm of the Roman Calendar: "On Saturdays of the year when there is no obligatory memorial, an optional memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary may be observed." The texts for the liturgical celebration of the Marian feasts witness to the general euchological enrichment brought about in the revision of the Roman Missal (1970). In addition to the Marian feasts already outlined, the Roman Missal includes seven other sets of Mass formulas as Commons of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be used for the Saturday celebrations and for votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


To grasp adequately the meaning of the Marian feasts, one must avoid placing them all on the same level. They can be divided into three groups, which more or less correspond to the three chronological stages of the history of Mary's liturgical cult: the feast of the divine maternity, the feasts that commemorate the events of the Blessed Virgin's life, and those that celebrate one of Our Lady's attributes or interventions.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Since the 4th century, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January1) has remained the greatest Marian feast. The Church venerates the one through whom the Savior was given to the whole world, thereby clarifying what is fundamental to Mary's role and the cause of all her privileges.

Feasts of the Blessed Virgin. This second group comprises those feasts whose objects are real or legendary events from Mary's life: her Nativity, her Presentation, and her Assumption. These feasts point up Mary's personal holiness rather than her role in the history of salvation; they strive to show the reflection of her exceptional vocation in her life and soul. With various nuances, they all proclaim Mary's beauty and sanctity.

Feasts of Our Lady. This last group is composed of those feasts that celebrate Mary especially as model, advocate, and protectress of the world. They venerate in Mary "Our Lady" more than her divine maternity or her virginity. It is quite significant that, at least in current usage, many of these feasts justly bear the name of "Feast of Our Lady of." The same is true of most of the local Marian feasts that celebrate Mary as patron or protectress of a particular place or community. The purpose of these feasts is only to distribute, according to local needs, the truth of faith that Mary is the one by whom the Savior is given to the human racea truth that is expressed on the human level in the mystery of the Incarnation, celebrated at Christmas.

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[p. rouillard/

t. krosnicki/eds.]

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Marian Feasts

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