Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Throughout the calendar year, the Church dedicates certain months to a particular topic or theme. In October, there’s a special emphasis on the Rosary. In November, we pray in a more intentional way for the faithful departed. But here we are in May and the Church focuses us on the Blessed Mother for the month.
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is an ancient and venerable part of the history of the Church. Throughout the many centuries, different aspects of this special relationship between the Church and the Blessed Mother have developed over time. Personally, I’m fascinated in knowing some of the earliest expressions of this kind of
devotion and what it might tell us of how important it might be.
How a community or culture uses art reveals a great deal about their priorities. Early Christian art is quite precious, especially anything from before 313 AD. In those first three centuries of Christianity, the Church was not only persecuted, but an illegal religion throughout the Roman Empire. Outward, tangible signs that a person was a Christian were dangerous and so the artwork of the time is both scarce and usually highly symbolic.
Typically, it attempted to avoid drawing attention to the Christian reality to outsiders while still being significant to Christians. For example, pelicans are a very common element of early Christian art. Legend has it that pelicans will actually tear their stomachs open in order to feed their young if there’s no other food available. Jesus feeds us with His Flesh in the Eucharist and so, the symbol of the pelican is meant to recall Christ.
So, when a piece of explicit Christian art exists, not just mere symbols and birds, we ought to pay attention and note how important it must have been and continues to be. The oldest depiction of the Blessed Mother is found in one of the catacombs of Rome and is what we call a Madonna, meaning that it is Mary holding the Child
Jesus. It dates to the 2nd century, roughly around 150 AD and it’s clear that it’s a mother holding and nursing a small child. Right next to mother and child is the prophet Isaiah, which helps confirm that this is Mary and Jesus, since so much of Isaiah’s writings talk of the Messiah.
It’s fascinating to me, to know that devotion to the Blessed Mother is so ancient and important that we find such an early example in the art. It reminds us of how essential a devotion to Mary is in our faith lives. Do we risk anything to let others know that we are Christian in our modern lives? Are we willing to show boldly that we
love the Blessed Virgin Mary to those around us as those earliest Christians did?
May our remaining time in May help us to focus on our attention on this great aspect of our faith!
Peace and Goodness,