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A Bow for the Queen : Honoring Our Lady's Name and Titles
A Meditation for the Feast of the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the Divine Praises, Our Lady is honored after the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Not only is she declared Blessed, but her name is honored.
Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother.
The feast of the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary originated in 1513 in Spain, the date shifting before it was settled upon September 12. This commemorates the 1683 victory of the Holy Roman Empire over the Turks at Vienna: Jan Sobieski, the leader of the Catholic forces, had devoutly entrusted his kingdom to the Virgin. His trust was not disappointed.
For years there was debate on the feast; many believed that her Nativity was sufficient for such a purpose. Ought we to celebrate her name too? And yet the celebration of her name alone is entirely proper.
For names have power and meaning. Our Lord calls His sheep by name.
Our names are given to us as a gift: loving parents take great care in naming their children. Traditionally, children are named after great saints, relatives, or both. This practice is half-lost in the modern world, where language is often considered self-referential and constantly shifting. Children are instead named after questionable celebrities, objects, favorite colors, trees… Furthermore, many reject the names they were given at birth, even if the name was given with respect and love.
Yet the Lord God Himself shows us that names have meaning. From the burning bush He commands Moses to say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.” And to the Jews, Christ says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The nuance is lost in English, but the Hebrew verb used implies not only existence, but presence. The name of God, rendered (so imperfectly) in human language, is a mere glimpse of “God” as eternal, ever-present.
And when the Lord changed Abraham’s name from Abram, it wasn’t symbolic. Abram was transformed from an “exalted father” (of no one, at that time) to the “father of a multitude.” The Lord gives Abraham his new name both as a gift (for God will give him the long-desired son) and a calling (as the father of a great nation). Today, we call him our father in faith.
We know names have significance. If we are called by name, we give attention to the one who called us: a name is not a mere sound. When we think of another’s name, the name invokes that entire person, body and soul, even though our thoughts (and the name) cannot express the entire reality of a person.
Still, why should Our Lady’s name have any special recognition? The Persons of the Blessed Trinity are God, and she is not. Can we not simply call upon the mere name of “Mary” as our friend, albeit a very holy one?
The saints affirm the holiness of her name. St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Anselm, and St. Anthony of Padua tell us of victories over trials and demons brought about by her name. Modern exorcists continue to attest to how evil recoils at the invocation of the Virgin.
… on hearing her great name pronounced, they fly from him who does so as from a burning fire.
—Thomas à Kempis, Canon
What is so special about her name? The beloved name “Mary” comes from the Greek and Latin Maria and the Hebrew Maryām. It could mean “beloved,” “bitter,” “beautiful,” or “wished for.” St. Jerome translates it as Stilla Maris (Hebrew “mar” + “yam,” drop of the sea), which over centuries shifted into Stella Maris (“Star of the Sea”). The name may also be related to the Hebrew word mara, implying robustness, or to an ancient Syrian word meaning “exalted.” St. Isidore of Seville suggests the name means “one who brings light” or “Lady.” St. Bonaventure brings many such interpretations together:
Mary is a bitter sea to the demons; to men she is the Star of the sea; to the Angels she is illuminatrix, and to all creatures she is Lady.
Perhaps it is because she is so much more than a mother to us that her name has taken on so many meanings. The Lord knew that her name would be claimed by many languages. And it is He Who commands us to honor her, He Who gave her the deepest honor and respect as her Child, and He Who entrusted us to her care. Perhaps the name signifies the many graces she received, and the many she gives to us.
Let us learn from Our Lord. If He calls her “Mother,” so ought we. Yes, it’s an easy habit to call upon the Blessed Virgin with a simple “Mary,” as we would call a friend. But Our Lady is not a mere friend. She is above all our mother, given to us by Our Lord: Behold, your mother. No amount of spiritual maturity will change this relationship, not even our (hopeful) entry into eternal happiness one day.
A child learns, in every culture, to address the mother with respect and obedience as “Mother,” a word which denotes her relationship and role… and yet, to the child, it is also her name. However, to say “Mother” or “Mom” does not mean we forget our mother’s name; it simply shows how intimately our mother’s identity is tied to our relationship with her. Our Lady is the Mother of Mothers: should we forget this? While the occasional adult may permit their grown children to call them by their first name as a sign of the grown child’s equality with the parent, let us not think of Our Lady in this way. She will always be our “Mother Mary.”
To call her “Mother Mary” is among the most beautiful and simple expressions of love for her. It expresses our filial love for her and recognizes her maternal love for us, a harmony of respect and affection.
Many other titles for Our Lady abound. We could spend months invoking her by a new title each day, from “Blessed Virgin” to “Queen of Peace.” Though a title and a name are not the same, to call upon her by title is also to call upon her in truth. All these invocations bring her to our mind, and call her attention to us. Such is the power of using her name and her titles: the opening of a conversation with our loving Mother.
Some say that these honors put her “too far” above us. She is far above us, but this is not an obstacle to love. If we praise our mother’s intelligence, beauty, and kindness when we speak of her, there is no offense, and there is no less love! Rather, we may rejoice in honoring her. When we invoke Our Lady as “Blessed Mother” or “Star of the Sea,” we are not distancing ourselves from her. We are loving her as our mother, the one who far surpasses all other mothers in perfection.
Calling her “Mother” and using her titles are among many ways to honor her name. Many religious orders maintain the tradition of each member, male or female, taking on Our Lady’s name as part of their religious name, such as St. Louis-Marie de Montfort. A church in Guam is called the Dulce Nombre de Maria (Sweet Name of Mary). The General Instruction of the Roman Missal regarding the celebration of Holy Mass keeps the traditional command to bow the head “when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated” (par 275a).
Today, many priests, religious, and lay faithful still observe these directives, and take great care in all situations to say her name with respect, calling her “Mother Mary” or “the Blessed Virgin” to signify love for their Mother and respect for her name.
Let us, too, call her “Mother.” Let us use her titles, not throwing “Mary” about casually as with an acquaintance, but showing our devotion with every honorific and appellation. For, as revealed to St. Bridget:
… there is not on earth a sinner… from whom the devil is not obliged immediately to fly, if he invokes her holy name with a determination to repent.
Let us bow our heads at hearing her name, especially to honor her when so many will not. As Christ Himself showed us, and the Church’s traditions maintain, let not only her person, but her name itself, be considered holy: not for careless or profane use, but to be invoked only with deepest love and affection. For, as she told St. Bridget,