The Church in her wisdom gives us feasts and seasons to help us to live the profound truths of our faith. She recognises that we do not always assent to certain truths of the faith through our intellect but also through the heart and the imagination.
I experienced this when I was on my ERASMUS year in Malta. I was Anglican at the time and studying Theology but had decided that I would become Roman Catholic. However, despite being raised as an Anglo-Catholic, I have to say I didn’t really get the whole Mary thing.
I knew the Theology, that without her perfect “yes” Jesus could not have been incarnated, but I couldn’t really understand that fierce devotion that many Catholics have to Our Lady, which can seem over the top to those outside the faith.
However, this all changed when I decided to go to a procession in the town of Cospicua. Every year the people of Cospicua put on a large procession, complete with home-made fireworks (a Maltese tradition!) and a brass band, in which a large silver statue of Our Lady is carried by six men through the narrow streets. In typical Maltese-style it’s a colourful and over-the-top affair.
When I arrived at the stunning Baroque Church where the procession was to begin, there was a concert going on and the huge statue of Our Lady was waiting by the door.
As the music stopped, I nearly jumped out of my skin as men with dark oiled hair stepped forward and started shouting in Maltese and gesticulating at the statue. As soon as one stopped another one would start, all the louder, trying to out-do the last man.
I learnt later that they were shouting poetry and praises to Our Lady. With raucous singing the statue was bought to the entrance of the Church where the fireworks burst into light. From where I was standing, the silver statue stood against the dark night sky and the fireworks were exploding around it. Something in my heart shifted.
The joy that was all around me penetrated into my heart and I felt that, in some way, I had been given some idea of the kind of party the angels must have had in heaven when Our Lady was immaculately conceived and God’s plan for the salvation of humanity began to enter its finale. In fact, this sense of God’s plan and providence for the human race was beautifully illustrated in the banners that lined the streets of Cospicua where the statue was carried.
They showed the various holy women of Israel – like Ruth, Jael, Miriam, Rachael and many more – who had co-operated with God’s plan and prefigured Mary.
Many people sniff at popular piety like this however, for me the pageantry helped me to assent in my heart to a truth that my mind had accepted.
Marian Prayer Book, A collection of classic prayers to Mary bound in imitation leather