MANY OF YOU will be familiar with this image – the statue of our Blessed Mother in the grounds of our lovely parish school, dedicated to her. One of the highlights of the year in Beckenham is the May procession in school, when hundreds of children go to the statue, one by one, to present offerings of flowers; and the statue is crowned by one of the children with a crown made from flowers. During all this the rosary is prayed and hymns sung to the Mother of God, with words such as Mary we crown thee with flowers today, Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May. This beautiful act of worship has been part of Catholic culture in Beckenham for decades now, celebrating the month of May which is dedicated in a special way to Mary as Queen of Heaven and of all creation. This year the May procession will take place later this month appropriately on Ascension Day (18th), which also coincides with the feast of St Raphaela Maria Porras Ayllón, foundress of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart who founded the school and who are still trustees.
In our liturgy there is a special proper Preface in honour of Our Lady as Queen of Creation, which begins the Eucharistic Prayer. The preface contains these words addressed to God the Father:
‘You are merciful and just, scattering the proud and raising up the broken-hearted. When your Son humbled himself and accepted death you crowned him with glory and honour and seated him at your right hand as King of kings and Lord of lords. When the Blessed Virgin, your lowly handmaid, endured with patient suffering the shame of her Son’s crucifixion you exalted her above all the choirs of angels to reign with him in glory and to intercede for all your children, our advocate of grace and the queen of all creation…’
There is so much good teaching here. Our reverence for Our Lady as our true Queen is linked closely to her Son, risen and ascended into heaven: she reigns with him, not on her own; moreover we are reminded of Mary’s own words from the Magnificat:
‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has taken down princes from their thrones and raised up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1: 51-53)
Both Sacred Scripture and the Church’s liturgy give us a distinctive picture of what God’s reign, and what we mean when we talk about Mary as our Queen; a picture somewhat at odds with earthly models of power and leadership.
The different visions are not really compatible, and someone who saw this very clearly was the 4th- 5th century theologian St Augustine, in his greatest work, The City of God, written in the early 5th century as the western Roman empire was beginning to collapse. While it is a long book and not easy to describe briefly, Augustine sees history as being made up of two distinct realities: the ‘Earthly City’, founded on greed, violence and love of self (which he identified with the Roman Empire), and the ‘Heavenly City’, made up of believers and founded on love and selflessness. The first city is fatally flawed because of false worship and false ideals. Injustice and violence and endemic to the earthly city because of contempt for God.
So it is fitting that alongside our devotion to Mary as our Queen, we also began May with the feast day, last Thursday, of the English martyrs: for true faith in the risen Christ comes with a price tag, often leading to persecution and death, usually at the hands of the State, of the ‘Earthly City.’ On Thursday we honoured, as we do every year, two hundred or so Catholic men and women who were killed by the State in this country from 1535 until 1680. Why were they killed? For denying the State’s usurped power over the Church and for believing in the Mass, in the doctrine of transubstantiation. The State is a jealous god, easily threatened.
We have been celebrating this spring the tenth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. In his first major document, issued at the end of 2013, Evangelii Gaudium (‘The Joy of the Gospel’) he reflects on Mary in words which should guide us in this her month of May:
‘Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves…’