The Lily of the Valley, a Special May Flower to place in our shrines
The month of May is significant in the Catholic Church and is often referred to as the Month of Mary. During May many of our churches and homes have a May Altar, a small area dedicated to honouring Our Blessed Mother Mary.
There are many flowers associated with Mary but none more referred to in the Bible than the lily of the valley. In ‘Song of Songs ‘alone it is referred to eight times and is even referred to by King Solomon himself.
In the Old Testament to our modern times, flowers and plants are seen as God s creation to express and share with the people. They are a sign of divine goodness truth and beauty – the aim of creation.
Because of its association with the mother of God, the lily of the valley flower is often a sign of rebirth, humility, chastity, purity, sweetness and motherhood. Many brides carry the flower in their wedding bouquets as a means of asking Mary to bless their marriage with similar virtues. It is also colloquially known as “Our Lady’s tears ‘or ‘Mary’s tears ‘ in reference to the Virgin Mary weeping at the crucifixion of her beloved son Jesus.
The legend of the lily of the valley has also been associated with the tears shed by Eve when she was banished from the Garden of Eden with Adam.
On May 1st a National Holiday in France also known as Labour Day, the French offer a small sprig of lily of the valley known as ‘Muguet’ to loved ones and friends but especially given to women to symbolise good luck and love.
Continuing the flower’s association with May and generally the springtime, socialists around the world have adopted the lily of the valley as their own symbol proudly displaying it on International Worker’s Day which is May Day.
The whiteness of the flowers of the lily of the valley have also been connected to the Saviour. The symbolism of Christ’s purity from sin. Its sweetness signifying the sweetness of Christ’s ministry to humanity and its fecundity, signifying the fruitfulness of Christ and His Apostles preaching.
Visiting Marian Shrines
In May we are to focus on Marian devotions and the coming together with Our Lady the mother of Jesus in prayer. Pope Francis has invited Catholics to visit Marian Shrines around the world to dedicate the month of May to a marathon of prayer for an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. This global initiative will involve all the Shrines of the world in a special way, so that they might encourage the faithful, families, and communities to recite the Rosary to pray for an end to the pandemic. Pope Francis opened the Marian month of prayer on 1st May with a Rosary broadcast across Vatican Media’s platforms.
Every day in May sees the Vatican broadcast the recitation of the Rosary at 6pm Rome time from the various Shines taking part in the initiative. This year’s dedication of May to pandemic-related prayer recalls a similar occurrence during the first wave in March 2020.
Pope Francis led the world in prayer during that confusing and difficult time, celebrating a live-streamed, daily Mass in the Casa Santa Marta.
After more than a year, and with the world still in the grips of the pandemic, the Pope and the Church around the world are once again leading the way in imploring God for an end to the suffering which so many people are forced to bear.
Every time we pray during May we join with Catholics and other people around the world in praying to Our Lady for an end to the pandemic.
In Newry Cathedral each Sunday afternoon in May at 2 pm there is a series of Devotions to Our Lady which includes hymns, prayers and information on Marian Shrines around the world. Everyone is welcome to join in person in the Cathedral of Saint Patrick and Saint Colman or on the Newry Cathedral Parish website where they are broadcast live on the webcam.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit
Prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were virtually living in hiding in the upper room. A great task had been entrusted to them, yet they had neither the strength nor the will to begin it. But after the coming of the Hoy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday they were change people. They left their hiding place and set out courageously to preach the Gospel. As a result of their preaching on that day 3,000 were baptised. Pentecost is often referred to as the ‘birthday of the Church’.
What was it that the Spirit did to them? In promising the Spirit, Jesus said to them, “ You will receive power when the Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but …. to the ends of the earth. (Acts1:8) I think the key word here is ‘Power’. Power was precisely what they needed. Before they received the Spirit, they felt completely powerless. They were crippled with fear and a sense of inadequacy. They felt totally incapable of carrying out the task of preaching the Gospel and witnessing to Jesus. After all, the had witnessed what happened to Jesus. They needed courage. They needed someone to empower them.
‘Empowerment’ is one of the ‘in’ words nowadays. And with good reason. We have seen individuals or groups of people who initially felt powerless to change their situation, suddenly became able to do so when someone empowered them. When people are empowered, they become able and willing to take charge of their situation. They no longer wait for someone else to do it for them. They accept that they and they alone must do something about it.
The Holy Spirit empowered the apostles. He came down on them in the form of wind and fire. Wind and dire (heat) are symbols of power. Wind has the power to move, to uproot. Fire has the power to refine and transform. The power they symbolise here is the power of God. Here they symbolise the presence and action of God. The coming of the Spirit provided the apostles with the energy, the momentum, the enthusiasm, the courage, the love, and the passion to get on with the task Christ had given them. The Holy Spirit would help them, but he wouldn’t do it for them.
However, we mustn’t think that the change in them came about in and instant. It had to be a gradual thing. It had to be a growth process, and growth can be slow and painful. But we also have been given a wonderful facilitator, namely the Holy Spirit. The Spirit awakens us to the mysterious power within us, bids us to live, and helps us to grow. This gives us some understanding of what happened to the apostles at Pentecost and can happen to us too. The power that changed the apostles is available to us too. The Holy Spirit energises and strengthens our spirit and purifies our hearts. The Holy Spirit gives us power to participate in the work of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is our strength in times of weakness, our guide in times of doubt, our consoler in times of sadness, our advocate who always pleads our cause. We cannot take one step without the Spirit. The poet Pablo Neruda said, “I want to do with you what the Spring does with the cherry trees. That’s what the Spirit does”.
Mary, the most famous female in History
May in the Catholic Church is traditionally the month of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is perhaps the most famous female in history and has inspired more music and art than any other woman. She has appeared on the cover of Time magazine more than many other person and she does much to redresses the balance of women in the Bi-ble. Devotion to Mary is a huge tradition in Ireland.
Many Catholics will remember the May altar and processions from our youth singing hymns as we walked behind the statute of Our Lady covered in floral tributes. They still continue in some churches in Ireland and in many parts of the world. The lovely hymn is sung in St Mary’s Church at 10.30am on Sundays, “Golden Rose, Queen of Ireland, all my cares and troubles cease as we kneel with love before you, Lady of Knock, my Queen of Peace’ demonstrates the importance of the Shrine to Our Lady in Knock.
But the importance of Mary goes beyond the Christianity, the historical figure of Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Quran, the only woman mentioned by name. In some parts of the Middle East Muslim women visit Marian Shrines. Our need of a mother or a mother figure in the church and society is a must. A mother has a unique perspective, nobody sees us like her, hardly surprising then that we have ‘mother church’ and ‘mother Ireland’.
Both how does this perception of perfect motherhood sit with us in the modern world, Mary will seem to many as a subservient women with no voice. The Bible only refers to her speaking 4 times. But we should not forget that Mary was a woman of her time when traditionally women were married at 14. In the Bible Mary is seen as a person who worried about her son, a woman who went through many trials in life. She was there during the persecution and crucifixion of her son. In the Marriage Feast of Canaan Mary reminds us of charity towards neighbours and that being charitable is an act of sacrifice that nourishes our human soul.
Perhaps the greatest lesson is how effective unspoken words and gentleness are. Who amongst us wouldn’t want such a person to intercede for us?
May is a special time in the church calendar when we honour Mary, the mother of Jesus and Newry Cathedral Parish invite parishioners and visitors to bring flowers to the Cathedral to decorate Our Lady’s altar. Take time this month to visit the altar in the Cathedral and in doing so may you find peace.
May is the Month of Our Lady
“O Mary, We Crown You With Blossoms Today, Queen Of The Angels and Queen Of The May.”
Many of you will recognise these lines as being from “Bring flowers of the rarest” also known as “Queen of the May.” Written by Mary E. Walsh and published in 1871, it is one of the most popular hymns to Our Lady. For generations it was the first hymn taught to pupils of St. Clare’s primary school in High Street.
One of the highlights of the school year in St. Clare’s was the annual procession ‘Up the Nun’s Hill.’ The whole school, pupils, teachers, parents and many of the residents of High Street and the surrounding area joined in with the Rosary and hymn singing. From the first day of May the teachers were inundated with the question,
“Please Miss, when are we going up the hill?”
For over 20 years, Gay Byrne opened his morning radio programme on the first of May by playing “Bring flowers of the rarest” by Scottish tenor Canon Sydney McEwan. When Gay hung up his headphones in 1998 the tradition was carried on by Ronan Collins and it continues to this day. Every year I wait in eager anticipation for the opening notes to come across the airwaves. I know then that the date on the calendar reads the first of May.
Until fairly recent times every Catholic primary school classroom and the majority of Catholic homes had a May altar in recognition of the important role which Our Lady plays in our faith. Sadly, like so many of our traditions, the May altars are now few and far between. They have become a victim of the increasing secularisation of our society. That is why I believe that RTE deserve great credit for continuing, in spite of much opposition, to broadcast the Angelus every day at noon and 6pm and, on the first of May, play “Bring flowers of the rarest.”
The winter was long and difficult. Many of us lost loved ones due to the pandemic and we were unable to grieve in the traditional Irish way. When we were young our Mother was the first person we went to with our pain and
sorrow. As Catholics we believe that not only is Mary the Mother of God but she is our Mother too. Who better then to listen to our prayers and intercede for us with her dearly beloved Son?
Spring has sprung, the days are longer and brighter, the birds are singing and the vaccine roll-out is gathering pace. This year, more than ever, May is the month that offers hope for the future. May is the month of Our Lady.