V. O Lady, etc.
R. From the hands of the enemy, etc.
Glory be, etc.
Hail, Solomon's throne!
Pure Ark of the Law!
Fair Rainbow! and Bush
Which the Patriarch saw!
We read in Kings 3, how Solomon made a great throne of ivory overlaid with the finest gold. It had six steps, and the top of the back was round. A lion was carved on each of the two arms of the throne, and twelve little lions stood on its steps, six on one side and six on the other. The sacred writer tells us that 'there was not the like work in any kingdom.' This beautiful throne typifies Mary who is the Seat of Wisdom. It was of ivory because Mary is white with innocence. Its six steps have been taken to represent the six virtues indicated by St. Luke in his account of the Annunciation. First, fear, for 'she was troubled' at the greeting of the angel: second, prudence, for she did not at once say yes or no, but 'thought within herself': third, modesty, 'how shall this be done?': fourth, constancy in her resolution, 'because I know not man': fifth, humility, in her saying 'behold the handmaid of the Lord': sixth, obedience, 'be it done to me.' This is the interpretation which St. Antony of Padua gave to the six steps of the throne. And in the round top of the throne he saw the never-ending charity of Mary, while the two arms represented the active and contemplative lives with St. Joseph and St. John as their lions. The twelve little lions were the Apostles. Finally, 'there was not the like work in any kingdom' for there has not been nor ever will be a creature like Mary. Indeed, in Christ's Kingdom, the Church, she holds a unique position. Again, Solomon's throne was the throne also of his son, David. This throne was given to Christ for His universal and everlasting reign (Luke i, 32). But Mary's lap was His first throne. Fittingly therefore, is she likened to the throne of Solomon.
She is also likened to the Ark of the Law. This was the sacred chest which Moses, by divine command, was ordered to make of acacia wood overlaid within and without with gold (Exod. xxv). Inside the Ark were kept the two tables of the Law; and above the Ark was the Propitiatory or Mercy Seat where God manifested His presence on special occasions. Before the Ark was placed the 'Bread of the Presence' or the 'Bread of God' as it was also called. Obviously this was a type of the good things to come, namely, the Real Presence of our Lord in our tabernacles under the form of bread. Mary is appropriately called the Ark of the Law because Divine Mercy Incarnate manifested Himself to the world through her; and for thirty years the Divine Presence was before her at Nazareth. By giving to the world the flesh and blood of God made Man she prepared for us the true Bread of God that came down from heaven and which we receive in the Adorable Sacrament of the Altar.
The rainbow was appointed by God as a sign of His covenant or friendship with Noe and his sons after the Flood (Gen. ix). Thereby they should know that God was their friend and that He would not destroy man again by the waters of a flood. When they saw the rainbow in the sky they would remember the mercy of God towards them. In a similar manner we look up to Mary the Queen of heaven, and she gives us confidence to hope for eternal salvation after we have been tossed on the rough waters of life here below.
The Bush which the Patriarch saw was the burning bush which Moses saw on the mountain of God, Horeb. In Exodus iii we are told how Moses saw that the bush was on fire but was not burnt. He approached to examine this extraordinary sight; but as he drew near he heard the Voice: 'Come not nigh hither. Put off the shoes from thy feet; for the place whereon thou staidest is holy ground.' God appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of the bush. So the Son of God appeared to us from the womb of Mary. Like the bush, she was on fire with intense love of God, by reason of the Divine Presence within her. It was indeed a miracle that she did not die of love, that her body was not consumed by the ecstatic delight that filled her breast. Only by supernatural power (like the bush at Horeb) did she remain unconsumed. Also 'the bush on fire but not burnt reminds us that her Motherhood did not take from her her Virginity' (Father Bliss, S.J.). So in the Divine Office recited by priests, there is an antiphon of the Feasts of Circumcision and Purification, which reads: 'In the bush seen by Moses as burning yet unconsumed, we recognise the preservation of thy glorious Virginity.
O Mother of God, intercede for us.'
Hail, Gideon's fleece!
Hail, blossoming Rod!
Samson's sweet Honeycomb!
Portal of God!
Gedeon was one of Israel's famous judges, that is, non-royal rulers. His exploits are recounted in the Book of Judges, vi-viii. He was chosen by God to deliver the children of Israel from the Madianites. Like our Blessed Lady he was favored with a vision of an angel; like her also he had deep humility. He answered the angel: 'I beseech thee, my lord, wherewith shall I deliver Israel? Behold my family is the meanest of Manasses, and I am the least in my father's house.' Like Mary he was given a sign (to her that her cousin Elizabeth should bear a child in her old age); although unlike her (but like her cousin's husband) he asked for a sign (Judges vi, 17-22). Later on, when the enemies massed to attack Israel and he had his army ready for the fray, he required a further sign: 'If thou wilt save Israel by my hand, as thou hast said, I will put this fleece of wool on the threshing-floor. If there be dew on the fleece only, and it be dry on all the ground beside, I shall know that by my hand, as thou hast said, thou wilt deliver Israel' (vi, 36, 37). God answered the prayer. The next morning Gedeon was able to fill a vessel with the dew he wrung from the fleece. Not yet satisfied, he asked for another sign in the fleece,' namely, that all the ground be bedewed and the fleece only dry. This also was done. The signs of the fleece showed that Israel was to be saved from her enemies. We may, therefore, liken our Lady to Gideon's fleece inasmuch as her maternity was a sign that salvation had come to the whole world. 'This shall be a sign to you; you shall find the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger' (Luke ii, 12). And there is another reason, taken from the Greek and Latin versions of Psalm lxxi, why Mary is like the fleece. In that glorious psalm, telling of the coming of Christ and of His Kingdom, we read that 'He shall come down like rain upon the fleece.' The Psalmist means that the birth of Christ into the world will be mysterious, gentle and unobserved. So indeed was the coming into the world of Mary's Son. Her sacred womb was like Gideon's fleece, for mysteriously, gently and silently the Word was there made flesh. We are reminded of that other beautiful passage in the Book of Wisdom (xviii, 14, 15):
For while all things were in quiet silence
And the night was in the midst of her course,
Thy Almighty Word leapt down from heaven
from Thy royal Throne.
Or, again the passage in Osee vi, 3:
His going forth is prepared as the morning
And He will come to us as the early and the
latter rain to the earth.
Mary is next compared with the blossoming rod of Aaron. During the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert there was a rebellion on the part of some who murmered against the priestly authority of Aaron. This rebellion was severely punished (read Numbers xvi). God then instructed Moses how he was to show the people that the tribe of Levi had exclusive right to the priesthood. Each of the twelve tribes was to choose a representative
who was to write his name upon a rod. Aaron's name was to be written on the rod of the tribe of Levi. The rods were then to be placed in the Tabernacle of the Covenant, and whose rod should blossom should be the one chosen by God for the exalted office of the priesthood. The rods were all put in the Tabernacle; and the next day it was found that the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded. The buds swelled into blossoms and then into ripe almonds. When the people saw what had happened they were thoroughly convinced that Aaron and the tribe of Levi were chosen as the official priests of Israel. Aaron's rod was kept in the Tabernacle 'for a token of the rebellious children of Israel: and that their complaints may cease' (Numbers xvii; Hebrews ix, 4).
How is Mary like the rod of Aaron? Because she alone was chosen of all Israel to give us our High Priest of the good things to come. The fruit of her womb (like the blossoms and almonds of Aaron's rod) was given miraculously to people of God. As she is the Mother of Christ, so she is also the Mother of the Christian priesthood. In a special manner Catholic priests call her 'Mother.' She also is present in the Tabernacle of the New Law (the Christian Church) to comfort us and make our complaints cease.
The next line in the hymn takes us to the stormy period when the Israelites were ruled over by judges and were almost constantly at war with the Philistines. We meet the turbulent figure of Samson at a time when 'the Philistines had dominion over Israel.' His birth was announced to his mother (hitherto barren) by an angel, who commanded that the child should be a Nazarite: 'Thou shalt conceive and bear a son, and no razor shall touch his head. For he shall be a Nazarite of God from his infancy, and from his mother's womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines' (Judges xiii, 5). When he grew up he became conscious of the spirit of God urging him on to leadership. In order to seek 'an occasion against the Philistines,' he asked his parents' permission to marry a Philistine woman whom he met at Thamnatha. On his way to visit his bride-to-be he was attacked by a young lion; but the Spirit of the Lord came upon him and he tore the lion as he would have torn a kid. He told no one of this. Returning with his bride by the same way some days later he saw a swarm of bees at the carcass of the lion and a honeycomb in its mouth. He ate of the honey and gave some to his father and mother, but he did not tell them whence it came. In those days at marriage feasts it was the custom to tell riddles. Samson took this opportunity for proposing a riddle to the Philistine young men who attended the feast, laying a wager of thirty shirts and coats that they would not solve it within seven days. He hoped thereby to humiliate the Philistines and make them pay the wager. The riddle was:
'Out of the eater came forth meat,
And out of the strong came forth sweetness.'
Unable to find the answer the Philistines bade Samson's wife coax it out of her husband, threatening her that if she did not do so they would burn her and her father's house. By tears, and protesting that he did not love her, the wife managed to get the solution of the riddle from her husband. 'What is sweeter than honey, and what is stronger than a lion?' The woman at once told her compatriots the answer. Samson was infuriated. He went to Ascalon; slew thirty men, and brought their garments to the Philistines. His wife then deserted him and took one of the wedding guests for her husband. This is not a very edifying incident; yet our Lady is likened to Samson's sweet honeycomb. How can this be?
Our Lady came from the tribe of Juda; and this tribe was represented by a Lion (Gen. xlix, 9; Apoc. v, 5). But this tribe was spiritually dead before Mary's birth. Her immaculate conception then was like sweet honey found in a dead lion. And who is sweeter than Mary full of grace?
The last line of the hymn speaks of her as Portal of God. Mary is indeed the portal or gate of God; for the Son of God entered her chaste womb in order to take on flesh; and from her He came forth into the world the first Christmas night. She is also likened to the closed gate spoken of by Ezechiel: 'And the Lord said to me: This gate shall be shut. It shall not be opened and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord, the God of Israel hath entered in by it. And it shall be shut for the prince' (xliv, 2, 3). Further to her we may fittingly apply the words of Psalm xxiii, 7-10.
This Psalm was written to commemorate the bringing of the sacred Ark (the symbol of the presence of God) into the old city of the Jebusites. A solemn procession was formed on that occasion, and one choir replied to another in chant. The first choir commanded the portals to open and to receive the honor of admitting God present over the Ark:
Lift up you heads, ye portals;
And be lifted up, ye ancient gates,
That the King of Glory may enter in!
The second choir then asks:
Who is the King of Glory?
To which the first choir replies:
The Lord, strong and mighty,
The Lord, mighty in battle!
Again the command is sung:
Lift up your heads, ye portals;
And be lifted up, ye ancient gates,
That the King of Glory may enter in!
And again it is asked:
Who is this King of Glory?
And the reply is repeated:
The Lord of hosts,
He is the King of Glory.
With that the Ark entered through the gates into the city of Sion and the Presence of God was enthroned therein. We may make this a hymn of angelic choirs singing in adoration as the Presence of God enters the gate of Mary's womb. No wonder she was preserved immaculate; no wonder the Office hymn continues:
Well fitting it was,
That a Son so divine
Should preserve from all touch
Of original sin,
Nor suffer by smallest
Defect to be stain'd
That Mother whom He
For Himself had ordained. Amen.
V. I dwell in the highest places.
R. And my throne is in a pillar of a cloud.
This versicle and response are taken from Ecclesiasticus xxiv, 7, where the inspired writer is singing the praises of Wisdom. The 'highest places' are where God dwells: with Him dwells Wisdom; and, as we have seen above, our Holy Mother the Church applies all that is said of Wisdom in the Old Testament to the Mother of eternal Wisdom―God made Man. By 'pillar of a cloud' is meant the cloud of glory which is the dwelling-place of the Most High. Later, the Jews spoke of it as the Shekinah. We call to mind that when Christ was transfigured this cloud came over the mount, and the voice of God was heard from it: 'This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him'; words which Mary also can say with full truth, and which, indeed, she is always saying to us. May we listen to her, and 'hear Him.' Some writers also think that this same cloud directed the Israelites in their wanderings through the desert.
The usual V and R follow:
O Lady, recommend my prayer.
And let my cry come uno thee.
―Again, the authentic text tells us to add the Prayer: 'Holy Mary, Queen of heaven,' etc.