Father Hunwicke really surpassed himself today. In a three-part series which I have lumped into one, he invokes Our Lady of Victories (whose Feast Day it is) as the Patroness of the Synod in Rome. Even if you have little Latin and no Greek, I am sure it will give your spirits a lift in these confusing and depressing times…..
So, had I been Bishop of Rome, how would I have structured this Synod of Bishops? Firstly: I would have put it under the Patronage of our Lady of Victories. My statutes would decree that, each morning, after each of the Fathers had offered his own private Mass, they should all come together for a corporate celebration of the Akathist Hymn.
What a telling title: our Lady of Victories. So very Western Catholic; so Counter-Reformation ; so baroque; so redolent of the triumphalist Anglo-Catholicism of the 1920s and 1930s. You couldn’t possibly imagine, could you, the Byzantine Christians giving the Theotokos a title like that … Well, of course, they did. One of those Greeks did write a hymn to Mary as the hypermachos stategos with an aprosmakheton kratos (the Protecting General with an irresistible power). If the Orthodox had Hymns Ancient and Modern, you would probably find in it a paraphrase of the Hymnos Akathistos beginning: Stand up, stand up, for Mary. Or, taking my fantasy even further, imagine some Orthodox Sabine Baring Gould writing Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war; with the Protecting Robe of Mary, going on before.
Because, of course, the title our Lady of Victories, just like the Akathist hymn, does have its military associations. That great Pontiff, S Pius V, established the Feast of our Lady of Victories to celebrate the triumph of Christian arms at the battle of Lepanto, October 7, 1571, a victory won by the countless rosaries which clanked through the hands of the Rosary Confraternities of Western Europe. They begged God for the safety of Christendom against the invading Turk. Gregory XIII pusillanimously renamed the feast as ‘of the Rosary’, and popped it onto the first Sunday of October (a stone’s throw from the Feast of the Protecting Robe of the Mother of God in some Byzantine calendars) where it stayed until the reforms of S Pius X. But, to this day, those who follow the Extraordinary Form are allowed, on the first Sunday of October, an External Solemnity of this feast. And, after all, no homilist could be forbidden to refer to this celebration as our Lady of Victories.
If the title of our Lady of Victories apparently seemed a bit over-the-top even to a sixteenth century pope, it seems all the more inapposite to our age. Triumphalism is a dirty word to the twenty-first century Church. And not only a dirty word, it’s a forbidden concept. Not for us that great canvas of Rubens in the Prado – the Triumph of the Church – with the heretics squirming in helpless agony under the inexorable chariot wheels of Ecclesia Triumphatrix. Not for our age Tiepolo’s ceiling in the Carmelite Church in Venice, with the imperious and Gloriosa Domina looking down an almost haughty nose as she’s carried in glory by clouds and angels, riding, as if it were on a supercelestial surfboard, standing on the Holy House of Nazareth as it flies to Loreto. No: our age looks to a humbler Virgin; Mary the model of obedience; Mary, the norm of the disciple; Mary, the Woman of Faith. Triumphalism is not of our age. We’ve been cut down to size. Ecclesia Triumphatrix has been replaced by Ecclesia Famulatrix – although I bet Orthodoxy, not so quick to lose her nerve, still celebrates dominically the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Good for them! But for Westerners, who have suffered a collective loss of confidence, the Church is the Servant Church, the only society, we have been rather foolishly informed, which exists to ‘serve’ those who are not members.
But readers of Scripure might have their occasional nagging doubts about this proscribing of all Triumphalism. The Magnificat, for example, the song of the tapeinos, the lowly one, suggests that the Lord has hupsosen, highly exalted, her. And the woman of the Apocalypse, crowned with stars and adorned with the Sun, whether she be the Messiah’s Mother or his nurturing community or both, seems to my eye to have had more than a dollop of Triumphalism ladled over her. Our Lady, after all, is, as we Latins have been taught to sing, victorious over heresies: Thou alone hast put down all heresies in the whole world”. The truth of Theotokos secures the Incarnation of a real God against the heresy of Islam; it guarantees that the Rabbi from Nazareth possesses an unpronounceable Hebrew Name written but not spoken in four silent letters. Since God has entered his world in the flesh, that Kosmos, created by him and redeemed, is itself good; let Manichee therefore stop his mouth.
But Christian materialism – our emphasis on the reality of an Incarnate God and the goodness of his created universe – is not the materialism of secular society. S Joseph was the foster-father of God, not his begetter; the chaste Guardian, not the bedfellow, of the Mother of God. This unambiguously masculine figure, whose calling was continent love, is God’s witness against the sexual trophyism and appetite of the culture we live in. Dogmatically, S Joseph’s witness is encapsulated in another title of our Lady, Aeiparthenos, Ever-Virgin; a title which features so much more largely in the ancient Conciliar documents and the authentic tradition of both East and West than it does in much modern writing. I think we have lost yet more of our nerve when it comes to talking about virginity and purity. And the result has been that we end up with Bishops being gathered at the expense of the faithful from the four corners of the globe (rhetoric, rhetoric!) to discuss sympathetically, tactfully, and without condemnations … Adultery, fornication, and sodomy!!
How often, Fathers, do you preach on Chastity? How often, brothers and sisters, do you hear your clergy teaching about Purity? How much time would you guess is being devoted, in the Synod of Bishops, to discussing Sexual Abstinence? How many of the clustered, hungry, journalists in Rome are leaking the explosive words of Bishop X about Purity; the angry ‘intervention’ of Bishop Y on Virginity? The Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, has used our own doctrine, the inherent materialism of the Incarnation, to undermine the whole concept of Continence; and what have we ended up with? A society which respects, enhances, and protects Marriage as never before? You know that we haven’t. We find ourselves with a culture in which fornication and adultery have become norms, and wedlock is treated as endlessly terminable and repeatable, and Marriage is redefined in terms of fluid Gender. (There’s such skilled and calculated cynicism here … who can fail to believe in a personal Devil?) Only now do we see, five decades after Humanae Vitae, that it is solely in the context of a society which exalts Continence and Virginity that Marriage itself has a chance of surviving.
In 1854, Pope Pius IX issued an dogmatic decree, over the small print of which Latins and Byzantines may make differing judgements. What is indisputable about it is that it did put the adjective Immaculata right at the centre of Western devotional culture. By doing so, it brought the Occident into line with the Orient; taught us timorous Westerners the importance of that great word-bag of alpha-privatives with which Byzantine hymnody had for more than a millennium adorned the Mother of God: amomos, akhrantos, apsilos, aphthartos. Khaire, nymphe anympheute! I put it to you that Mary’s perpetual Virginity, an immaculate purity of heart and mind and body, is not so much a title, a mere honorific, as it is a dogma. And not so much even a dogma, as God’s conquering and triumphant Truth, which alone can win the victory over the disorders of our culture.
The Immaculate and Ever-Virgin Lady of Victories, born aloft by the sculptors on billowing draperies, her gravity-defying bulgy baroque crown precariously perched upon her head, is the Woman of Triumph whom God is giving to this world, and he is giving her now. She treads down all the serpents of heresy; she crushes all the serpents of vice and corruption with her virgin and immaculate heel. Khaire, kataptosis ton daimonon! Her Immaculate Heart will prevail.