On this first day of the new year, the Church in its liturgy invites us to meditate on the reality of Mary, the Mother of God. Last week we marvelled at the fragile, young new-born child laid in the manger. He looks, feels and acts like a normal human baby; there is nothing to indicate to us that he is in fact the only Son of God. Jesus is fully human, like us in all things, except that he cannot be touched by sin (cf. Heb 4:15). One wonders what Mary and Joseph thought and felt as they held their first born child. One would presume that Mary was not impressed to have to give birth in a smelly stable, not even in the shelter of the local inn!
Yet, hidden underneath that human body there is hidden a divine nature. Jesus set aside his divinity to be born among us as human, remaining the divine Son of God, sharing in God’s nature, one with God (cf. Phil 2:1-11). The child born of Mary, lying in the manger, is the Son of God. Mary did not simply give birth to another human child, but to the Son of God himself. This reality was not easy for the early Church to understand, until it was clearly defined by the Council of Ephesus, in the year 431.
On the cross Jesus asks the beloved disciple to take Mary ‘as his own,’ taking her as his mother, becoming brother of Jesus and son of God (cf. Jn 19:26-27). John does not name the beloved disciple, making it possible for us to enter the scene and accept our place as sisters and brothers of Jesus, daughters and sons of God. We too are beloved by God! As children of God, we too, like Jesus, share in the inheritance of the Father.
In 1932, as the Church celebrated 1,500 years from the definition of this dogma by the Council of Ephesus, Joseph De Piro published an article about this mystery in his almanac.
MATER DEI, MATER DEI, MATER DEI (Mother of God)
In Ephesus, St Paul spent two years evangelising. One day, he ordered all books promoting superstition to be burnt, and a large bonfire was held in the city’s main square. This brought about the reaction of the pagans who started shouting “Long live Diana!”” and went on a rampage against Paul and the Christians. Notwithstanding this, St Paul still showed his love toward the citizens of that city, and in his letter addressed to them, he reminded them of what he had done for them, and how they ought to respond to his teachings about Jesus Christ.
St Paul’s mission had not been in vain. Many years later Ephesus became a city devoted toward Mary. A magnificent basilica in Mary’s honour was erected there, and it became the venue where the Fathers gathered for the Third Ecumenical Council. That Council, presided by St Cyril as the Pope’s representative, condemned Nestorius’ heresy. When the Council proclaimed Mary as Mother of God, the Ephesians held a spontaneous manifestation. This time it was not against the Christians, but against a heresy, or rather, in favour of the doctrine of the Church that has just been proclaimed by the successor of Peter, the Holy Pope Celestinus I, represented by St Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. In the streets and squares of Ephesus, as the people held lighted torches, instead of “long live Diana,” the happy exclamation “Long live Mary, the Mother of God” was heard.
What follows is a first-hand account written by St Cyril to the Alexandrians, keeping in mind that he was Nestorius’ rival.
“The Holy Synod was held in the large church of Ephesus, dedicated to Mary Mother of God, on the 22nd of June (431). After a discussion that lasted a whole day, we finally condemned Nestorius, that blasphemer, who chose to not participate. The gathering of two hundred Bishops decided that he can no longer be considered to be a Bishop.
“The entire population of the city spent all day expecting the Council’s judgement. When they heard that that blasphemer was divested of his dignity, there was a unanimous praise for the Council and the people started glorifying God that, at last, the enemy of the Faith had been defeated.
“When we, the Council Fathers, walked out of the church, the people, carrying lighted torches, accompanied us to the residences where we were lodging. Even though it was late, the joyous feast was great. There were many illuminations, and some women even walked in front of us swinging incense burners.
“Thus, yet again, the Church was victorious because, in troubled times, she looked toward the Vicar of Christ and heeded his words. As a commemoration of this victory, the Bishops at this Council added to the Angelic greeting the prayer we often repeat every day, “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Pope Pius XI, through the letter he wrote to Cardinal Sincero, expressed his wish that the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Ephesus be celebrated in a fitting way by the whole Church, both in the East and in the West. After all, Mary, proclaimed Mother of God by this Council, is the Mother of all Christians.
Following the Pope’s desire, all Rome set in motion and together with, it the whole of Italy. One of the major events was the National Marian Congress that was concluded with a procession with the image of Our Lady venerated at the Major Basilica dedicated to Our Lady under the title of ‘Health of the Roman Peoples.’ Besides Rome, we can say that the whole world, in one way or other, celebrated the centenary of the Council of Ephesus and the greatness of Mary, Mother of God and our Mother. Malta, having been devoted to Mary since the early years of the Church, was extremely glad with the Pope’s initiative and wanted to adhere to his wishes. A huge celebration was held on Sunday 25th October last year at the Floriana Granaries, and, through the Vatican press, the devotion of the Maltese toward Mary became known throughout the entire world.
The Bishop of Malta’s idea of holding a solemn celebration to commemorate the Council of Ephesus was indeed an inspired one. The focus was upon the devout image of Our Lady venerated at the Greek Catholic church in Valletta, under the title of ‘Our Lady of Damascus’.
This image of Mary is called ‘of Damascus’ because it has been honoured in the city of Damascus since time immemorial. The Scriptures tell us that a lively Christian community was present there from the very beginning and it attracted the zeal of Paul of Tarsus, the champion of the Law of Moses. One can say that Damascus played an important part in the conversion of the Apostle our father. Tradition holds that this image of ‘Our Lady of Damascus’ was painted by St Luke, who was deeply involved with the Christian community in Damascus. It is therefore probable that he gave them this image of Mary to reward them for the veneration they had toward her.
We would like to say something about the way this image found itself in Malta, enhancing our Christian Faith. This image was greatly honoured by the Christians of Damascus and, through it, they received many graces. At one point, Damascus was conquered by the Muslims, and the Christian religion started to gradually disappear. This cherished image of Our Lady, nevertheless, was left there, and it remained in Damascus till 1415. Witnesses said that they saw the image, preceded by a light, entering the port of the Island of Rhodes where the knights of St John were stationed. Some sailors said that, as soon as they saw that mysterious light, they started to follow it. The knights immediately recognised the image as that of Our Lady venerated in Damascus. Since then, the knights have kept it and venerated it with great affection, and when Rhodes fell to the Turks in 1522, the knights did not leave the image behind, eventually bringing it with them to Malta in 1530. After being kept for a some time in Senglea, in 1587 the image was placed in the church where it still resides today. It was indeed appropriate that this image was chosen to be the focus of the celebrations to commemorate the Council of Ephesus.
The preparation for the event started with three days of sermons delivered in all the parishes of Malta by preachers chosen specifically the Bishop. On the evening of Tuesday 20th of October, the centenary celebrations were inaugurated with a solemn procession carrying the miraculous image of Our Lady of Damascus from the Greek Catholic church to St John’s Co-Cathedral. The main celebrant was Mgr M. Gonzi, the Bishop of Gozo, assisted by the Chapter of Cathedral of Malta. When the procession arrived at St John’s, the Bishop’s Vicar, Fr. Paul Galea, enthused with love toward Mary, delivered a moving sermon. With fine words fitting for the occasion, he reminded us how, in Malta, the devotion toward Mary dates back to the time of St Paul’s shipwreck on our shores. St Luke, who accompanied Paul, left us not one, but two images of Our Lady. One is painted directly on the rock surface in Mellieha, while the other is on wood, housed in the Mdina Cathedral. Since those early days, the Maltese have always had the greatest veneration for them both, and recently they were crowned by Bishop P.P. Pace.
He then reminded us that the first titular of the Co-Cathedral was the image which we have just mentioned, and that nearly half of the parishes of Malta and Gozo, including the Gozo Cathedral, are dedicated to Our Lady. He referred to the beautiful and devout habit of families praying the Rosary together every evening. He also mentioned the widespread devotions linked to the Carmelite scapular and to the cincture in honour of Our Lady.
Fr Galea then gave a list of the crowning ceremonies that have been held in honour of Our Lady: Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Valletta; the Immaculate Conception, Cospicua, Our Lady of Tal-Herba, Birkirkara; and of the Nativity of Mary, Senglea. Referring to the prayer We fly to your protection, O Holy Mother of God, he explained that, the crowing of the image of Our Lady of Damascus, will be a reminder of the celebrations held to mark the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Ephesus.
The opening celebration was followed by three days of events organised by the Diocesan Marian Congress committee. These were held in Italian at St John’s Co-Cathedral and in Maltese at the Jesuit church. The best orators, both ecclesiastic and lay, delivered well-prepared speeches regarding the nine aspects under which Our Lady ought to be honoured: (1) Mary Theotokos, Mother of God, (2) The divine maternity and Christian mothers, (3) Malta and Mary, (4) The divine maternity of Mary in Catholic Dogma. (5) The Divine maternity of Mary and purity of the soul. (6) Before and after the proclamation. (7) Mary, Mother of God and our Mother. (8) The Eastern Church and the Virgin Mary. (9) The Council of Ephesus and the Primate of Rome.
The Pontifical High Mass, celebrated in the Greek Catholic rite at St John’s on the 24th of October, enhanced these centenary celebrations. The presiding celebrant was Mgr Paul Schirò, titular Bishop of Benda, assisted by other prelates of the same rite, who, apart from the Papas of Malta, came from Sicily for the occasion. The ceremonies of the concelebration were really moving, especially the sharing of the unconsumed Bread by the priests who participated. The Bishop himself, after removing his liturgical vestments, kindly offered the Bread to the priests.
The solemn conclusion was held on Sunday 25th of October. In the morning, the Bishop of Malta celebrated a Pontifical High Mass at St John’s Co-Cathedral in front of the image of Our Lady of Damascus. As usual, he was assisted by the Cathedral Chapter. In the afternoon, the miraculous image of Our Lady was carried, accompanied by an immense procession, to the Floriana granaries. It seemed that all Malta was there, because the crowd filled this very large space. The crowd could follow the speeches over a loudspeaker installed on the bell tower of the church, overlooking the granaries.
When the Bishop of Malta, Mgr Caruana, assisted by the Bishop Michael Gonzi and Papas Schirò, first crowned the head of the Child and then that of Our Lady, the crowd could not contain its joy. When the Bishop kissed the crowned image, the whole assembly exploded in a hearty and enthusiastic applause. At that moment, all those present felt that they wanted to be united to the Bishop in that act of veneration and love towards Mary.
The 25th of October proved to be really a heavenly experience. Even though it came after eighteen years, it was a vivid reminder of the Eucharistic Congress. It is hard to pick the most moving moment: was it the procession towards Floriana? Was it the moment of the crowning? Was it the singing of the Te Deum? Was it the procession back to St John’s, and the reception it got at Kingsway, Valletta? What is certain is that all those who took part returned home full of joy. Another moving moment was the handing back of the image to the Greek Catholic Papas by the Bishop. In a way, it reminded us of that very tender action which took place on Calvary, when Christ entrusted his beloved mother to St John.
In Gozo, the Bishop celebrated the fifteenth centenary with the solemn consecration of the new church built over the ancient sanctuary of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu. Here again, the people of our sister island showed that they, too, are really devoted to Mary.
After the last homily delivered by the Bishop of Gozo, the people of Gozo, too, cried out: Mater Dei, Mater Dei, Mater Dei!
Our Missionary Society wanted to show its love toward Our Lady by organising a literary evening for our boarder students. The evening concluded with approving a resolution to make our small voice heard by the Bishop. We asked him to place another pearl in the crown of Mary, Our Most Holy Mother, through the dogmatic definition of the glorious Assumption of Mary, a title so dear to the Maltese.