The Passionists - Compassion

Mary in Christian Tradition

Medieval Devotion to Mary

The Christian people of the Middle Ages, suffering constantly fron disease, famine and war which they were helpless to do anything about, turned anxiously to Mary for assistance. Simple faith led them to trust her to intercede for them with her Son as she did for the ordinary people at the marriage feast of Cana.

Since she was a compassionate mother who had experienced the sufferings of Calvary, they petitioned her for cures from sickness, for protection and help. Her kindness and power were proclaimed everywhere -- in the sermons they heard, in art and song and prayer.

Meditating on the Life of Mary

Popular classics like "The Meditations on the Life of Christ," a book dating from the 13th century, nourished medieval devotion to Mary. Widely circulated, it taught Christians to see the lives of Jesus and Mary through a kind of "pilgrimage of the imagination." By meditating on the stories of the Gospel, embellished with additional details and legends, one could experience Christ and his saints and learn from them how one should live.

Stories from the "Meditations," appealing and tender as the following short excerpt from the Nativity of Jesus shows, greatly influenced the way medieval Christians saw Mary and inspired also the works of so many medieval artists.

". . . the emperor wrote a proclamation that the whole world should be registered, and everyone go to his own city. So obeying the command, Joseph started on his way with our Lady, taking with him an ox and an ass, since she was pregnant and the road long to Bethlehem. They arrived like poor owners of animals.

"Now they could not find an inn when they arrived at Bethlehem, because they were poor and many others were there to register, too.

"Pity our Lady, and see this delicate girl, only 15 years old, as she walks so carefully, tired by the journey and jostled by the crowds. They were sent away by everyone, the childlike mother and the old man, Joseph, her husband.

"When they saw an empty cave that people used when it rained, they entered it for shelter. And Joseph, who was an expert carpenter, probably closed it in some way. . . When Jesus was born, Mary wrapped him in the veil from her head and laid him in a manger. The ox and the ass knelt with their mouths above the manger and breathed on the infant as if they knew the child was poorly clothed and needed to be warmed in that cold season.

The mother knelt also to adore him and to thank God, saying, 'I thank you, Father, thay you gave me your Son and I adore you, eternal God, and you, Son of the living God, my Son.' Joseph also adored him.

"Then Joseph took the ass' saddle and pulled out the stuffing of straw and placed it near the manger so that our Lady might rest on it.

"She sat down and stayed there, her face turned constantly toward the manger, her eyes fixed lovingly on her dear Son."

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