Friday, May 1, 2015


Amazing as it seems to me today, the year 2015 is already one-third over! Today is May 1 - "May Day." 

In our contemporary Catholic calendar, May 1 celebrates Saint Joseph the Worker - a Cold War era attempt to co-opt the secular observance of May Day, which had long been the international Communist and Socialist holiday and still serves as a secular "Labor Day" holiday in many countries. (Of course, it had been a pagan seasonal holiday long before.)
But, before Saint Joseph ever got May Day assigned to him, May had been - and remains - a month traditionally dedicated in a special way to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church. Why May? The famous English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wondered about that enough to compose a poem called The May Magnificat, which begins: 

May is Mary’s month, and I                                                                                                       Muse at that and wonder why:                                                                                                   Her feasts follow reason,                                                                                                       Dated due to season. 
Putting his question to Mary herself, the poet gave himself this answer: 
Ask of her, the mighty mother:                                                                                                   Her reply puts this other:                                                                                             Question: What is Spring?                                                                                                 Growth in every thing. 

The rest of his poem is his elaboration on that response, linking May's traditional pre-Christian seasonal spring motifs with Mary.

Poetic fancies aside, there is at least one good historical connection between Mary and May. It was on May 13, 610, that Pope Boniface IV consecrated an ancient Roman temple, the Pantheon, as the Church of Mary and all the Martyrs (photo above).

Since the month of May largely overlaps with the Easter season, this coincidence also invites us to pay particular attention to Our Lady’s participation in the Easter events, in particular to her presence in prayer with the disciples after the Ascension, as they awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit to initiate the time of the Church. 
The Regina Caeli, one of the Church’s four great Marian antiphons used at different seasons to conclude the Church’s daily office of prayer (“The Liturgy of the Hours”) is perhaps more familiar as the prayer which replaces the daily Angelus during the Easter season. One popular legend associates its origin in the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (540-604). According to the legend, one Easter morning as he was walking in procession, Saint Gregory heard angels chanting the first three lines of the hymn: Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia. The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia, Has risen as he said, alleluia. In response, Gregory was supposedly inspired to add the fourth line: Pray for us to God, alleluia. At my church here in Knoxville, we sing the Regina Coeli at the end of every Sunday Mass during Easter time. 

Another valued May tradition has been the annual May Crowning. When I was growing up, this usually took place toward the end of the month. But the widespread preference now seems to be to do it earlier in the month. So we usually to do it here on the first Sunday of May each year.

I wonder whether the earlier fondness for crowning Mary at the end of the month may have been connected with the introduction of a special feast of her Queenship in 1954. In addition to trying to co-opt the traditional Communist and Socialist May Day holiday at the beginning of the month, Pope Pius XII somewhat more successfully framed the month with a new feast of Mary as Queen on May 31. In his  Marian Year Encyclical Ad Coeli Reginam (October 11, 1954), the Pope eloquently praised Mary's royal dignity and expressed the desire that, "as a most radiant light upon a candlestick, this soundly proved truth might more clearly shine upon all."

Interestingly, when this feast was being discussed by Pius XII's Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy in January 1954, it was May 1 which was first unanimously proposed as the date. In the end, however, Saint Joseph got May 1 and Mary got May 31. (In the 1969 calendar, however, the feast of Mary's Queenship was moved to the Octave of the Assumption, August 22.)

In its pre-Christian context, May Day celebrated the seasonal contest between winter and summer, with summer obviously the winner at this point in the yearly cycle. Originally May represented the transition between the seasons - i.e., spring. Now, however, thanks to climate change, summer comes much earlier and spring hardly exists anymore. Meanwhile, schools (at least in this part of the country) end their academic year earlier, which makes May more like what June once was. So May continues to evolve.

No comments:

Post a Comment