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The surprising Marian hymn the Church gives us for Lent

MOTHER MARY
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Our lives aren’t ultimately about the Cross.

If you’ve ever prayed the Rosary, odds are good you know the Salve Regina — the Hail, Holy Queen, a prayer passed down to us from the Middle Ages and prayed by the faithful the world over. But you may not know that it’s only one of four Marian Antiphons — prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mother that are recited at the end of night prayer by Catholics everywhere.

Each of the four belongs to a particular season. From Advent through Candlemas, we pray the Alma Redemptoris Mater, during Easter the Regina Caeli, from Pentecost through the end of Ordinary time, it’s the Hail, Holy Queen. And as of yesterday, we’re singing the Ave Regina Caelorum, which is translated in the Liturgy of the Hours as follows:

Hail, Queen of heaven;
hail, Mistress of the Angels;
hail, root of Jesse; hail, the gate
through which the Light rose over the earth.

Rejoice, Virgin most renowned
and of unsurpassed beauty.
Farewell, Lady most comely.
Prevail upon Christ to pity us.

What’s remarkable about the Church’s choice of this hymn for the weeks leading up to Lent and then the seemingly interminable weeks of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, is that there’s nothing particularly dolorous about it. One would expect Lent to be marked by the Stabat Mater, a hymn to Mary at the foot of the Cross. Instead, we have a hymn of joy.

“Ave, Regina,” we sing, echoing the greeting Gabriel offered Our Lady at the Annunciation. Interestingly, this “Ave,” so dully translated “Hail” throughout English prayers, might better be translated, “Rejoice.” “Rejoice!” Gabriel cried to an unsuspecting Mary in Nazareth. And “Rejoice!” we cry here.

Starting on the very day she offered her son as a sacrifice in the Temple, we begin singing to her, asking her to rejoice. As the ashes are traced on our foreheads, a reminder of the death we deserve and the death offered in our stead, we remind Mary—and ourselves—to rejoice.

On days of abstinence, again we sing, “Rejoice!” As we follow our Lord into the city where he will be slain, we grit our teeth and continue our Lenten cry: rejoice! Only on Holy Thursday and Good Friday does the Church allow us to silence what may seem an unnatural refrain. As Jesus is dragged before the Sanhedrin, as he lies dead in the tomb, the joy of the coming resurrection is almost—almost—overshadowed by sorrow. And so we stand in silence beside the Blessed Mother, waiting in hope for the promise to be fulfilled.

Because that has been the reason for our joy all along. As we take a deep breath and get ready for Lent, we focus not on the suffering but on the joy. All through the dreary weeks of February, we call to Mary, to each other, and to ourselves, to rejoice. As we take up our Lenten penance, we fix our eyes on the joy the other side of the cross. When the lack of caffeine or protein or pop music threatens to defeat us, we choose to rejoice. Even as we veil our statues and cry out for Pilate to crucify our king, each night we’re called back to Mary’s side, where we ask her (and ourselves) to choose joy. Because Lent isn’t ultimately about the Cross, it’s ultimately about the resurrection.

Our lives aren’t ultimately about the Cross. Our lives are about the resurrection.

It seems nearly impossible to believe that on some days, when the weight of illness and loneliness and poverty and sin come close to pushing us under. Mary may have felt the same way, knowing what her son was about to endure, watching him suffer as none had ever suffered. And she didn’t paste a Pollyanna grin on her face. No, Mary’s joy wasn’t pretended happiness. Mary’s joy was hope, a deep trust that whatever she might suffer, at the end of it all was an empty tomb and the embrace of her savior.

I imagine myself, while reciting this prayer, standing beside a white-lipped Mary, murmuring to her. “This is awful. But you’re going to be the queen of heaven. This is awful, but think how the angels are about to rejoice. This is awful! But your life has given us the dawn from on high, the Messiah, the Lord of all.“

When we pray this antiphon, I think Mary returns the favor. I think she acknowledges the pain of our lives, but points through Good Friday to Easter Sunday. “Rejoice!” she whispers. “God will work even this for good.”

It’s still a week and a half till Lent, but sometimes I think I need a running start. Would you join me, and millions of Catholics around the world, in committing to pray this antiphon every night from now until the Wednesday of Holy Week? Let it be a reminder: However ugly life might get, there is always something—Someone—to rejoice over.

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