The perfect Lenten companion

The season of Lent directs us to recall our own baptism and prepare for the celebration of the paschal mystery of the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ. It is a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and it helps us grow closer to Christ. In celebrating Lent and in every season of the liturgical year, it is good to recall the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, that the “Church honors with special love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son. In her the Church holds up and admires the most excellent fruit of the redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 103).

Mary is the perfect companion for Lent, and Lent is a perfect time to deepen our love, knowledge and veneration of the Mother of God. This is especially true during this centenary year of the apparitions of Mary at Fatima, where Mary asked three shepherd children to offer prayers and sacrifices for the conversion of poor sinners. Lent is also a season of conversion, and here too we receive great help from Mary who, as the Mother of Mercy, points us to her divine Son, Jesus Christ, who came into the world to reconcile sinners to himself (cf. Lk 5:31–32).

In his general audience on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014, Pope Francis highlighted the special protection and help of the Blessed Virgin for the journey of Lent:

“Let us give thanks to God for the mystery of his crucified love; authentic faith, conversion and openness of heart to the brethren: These are the essential elements for living the season of Lent. On this journey, we want to invoke with special trust the protection and help of the Virgin Mary: May she, who was the first to believe in Christ, accompany us in our days of intense prayer and penance, so that we might come to celebrate, purified and renewed in spirit, the great paschal mystery of her Son.”

Model disciple

These words of Pope Francis help us to appreciate one reason why Mary is the perfect companion for Lent: She is the model of the perfect disciple because she entrusted herself completely to God. At the Annunciation, Mary tells the angel: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). In 1974, Pope Paul VI taught that Mary is “worthy of imitation because she was the first and the most perfect of Christ’s disciples” (Marialis Cultus, No. 35).

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In his Angelus address for the second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted Mary as the model of believers who listen attentively to God:

“The Virgin Mary herself, among all human creatures the closest to God, still had to walk day after day in a pilgrimage of faith (cf. Lumen Gentium, No. 58), constantly guarding and meditating on in her heart the Word that God addressed to her through holy Scripture and through the events of the life of her Son, in whom she recognized and welcomed the Lord’s mysterious voice. And so, this is the gift and duty for each one of us during the season of Lent:  to listen to Christ, like Mary. To listen to him in his Word, contained in Sacred Scripture. To listen to him in the events of our lives, seeking to decipher in them the messages of Providence.”

In “Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary” (Liturgical Press, $44.95), one of the Mass formularies for Lent is in honor of “Holy Mary, Disciple of the Lord.” The entrance antiphon for this Mass reads:

How favored are you, Mary!
You received the angel’s message
And became the Mother of God’s Word.
How favored are you, for you kept in your heart
Those words from heaven and became the disciple of God’s Word.

Who leads us to Christ

“Do whatever he tells you.” Mary always leads us to Jesus. Adam Jan Figel / Shutterstock, Inc.

At the wedding feast of Cana, Mary told the servers: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). In a similar way, Mary directs us all to be faithful to Christ, her divine Son. If we wish to draw closer to Christ during Lent, there is no better way than by entrusting ourselves to Mary, our spiritual mother.

In his great work, “True Devotion to Mary” (Tan Classics, $11.95) St. Louis de Montfort (1673–1716) teaches that the entire purpose of devotion to Mary is to provide “a smooth but certain way of reaching Jesus Christ” (No. 62). He says that devotion to Mary “is a way of reaching Jesus perfectly, loving him tenderly, and serving him faithfully” (ibid.).

For St. Louis, “the more one is consecrated to Mary, the more one is consecrated to Jesus,” and consecration to Mary “is the perfect renewal of the vows and promises of holy baptism” (No. 120). If Lent is a season when we recall our own baptism (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 109), devotion to Mary is one of the best ways to do this.

Protector and guide

As our spiritual Mother, Mary not only leads us to Christ, but she also protects and guides us from sin. Vatican II teaches:

“The maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into the happiness of their true home” (Lumen Gentium, No. 62).

Lent is a perfect time to renew our devotion to Mary as our spiritual mother who cares for us in the midst of challenges and difficulties. One of the oldest known prayers to Mary is known as the Sub Tuum Praesidium (“Under Thy Protection”), which goes back to the third or fourth century. One translation of it reads:

We fly to Thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen

Because Lent is a time to turn away from sin, it is also an ideal time to recognize the gift that Our Lord himself gave us, giving us his own mother as our mother while he was dying on the cross (Jn 19:25–27). Pope St. John Paul II recognized that Jesus gave Mary as mother not only to the beloved disciple but to all of the faithful. Mary’s spiritual motherhood is the basis for the “Marian dimension” of the life of each of the disciples of Christ.

John Paul II wrote in 1987:

“The Marian dimension of the life of a disciple of Christ is expressed in a special way precisely through this filial entrusting to the Mother of Christ, which began with the testament of the Redeemer on Golgotha. Entrusting himself to Mary in a filial manner, the Christian, like the Apostle John, ‘welcomes’ the Mother of Christ ‘into his own home’ and brings her into everything that makes up his inner life, that is to say into his human and Christian ‘I’: he ‘took her to his own home.’ Thus the Christian seeks to be taken into that ‘maternal charity’ with which the Redeemer’s Mother ‘cares for the brethren of her Son,’ ‘in whose birth and development she cooperates’” (Redemptoris Mater, No. 45).

Parishioners kneel during Stations of the Cross at St. John by the Sea Parish in Klawock, Alaska, in 2014. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Teacher of prayer

Lent is a time to deepen our prayer life, and Mary provides the best example of prayer in her canticle, known as the Magnificat (Lk 1: 46–55). This canticle expresses the attitudes of praise, gratitude and humility that are at the heart of all authentic prayer to God.

Paul VI speaks of Mary as “the virgin in prayer” who “praises the Lord unceasingly and intercedes for the salvation of the world” (Marialis Cultus, No. 18). As our spiritual mother, Mary not only teaches us how to pray, but she prays for us “now and at the hour of our death.”

Mother of sorrows

In the Gospel of Luke, Simeon told Mary that her heart would be pierced so that “the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Lk 2:35). This prophecy was fulfilled during Christ’s passion when Mary stood beneath the cross witnessing her Son’s crucifixion (Jn 19:25–27).

Vatican II tells us that Mary “faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth” (Lumen Gentium, No. 58).

Lent, along with the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Sept. 15, is a special time for venerating Mary as our sorrowful mother.

This is done in the Stations of the Cross, which often includes the singing of parts of the medieval hymn, the Stabat Mater, whose most memorable verses are:

“At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish bearing,
Now at length the sword had pass’d.
Oh, how sad and sore distress’d
Was that mother highly blest
Of the sole-begotten One!”

United with Christ

Because Lent points to Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows assumes particular importance. But even under the cross, Mary remains a teacher and a model. She shows how all of the faithful, like her, can unite their sufferings to the passion of Christ for the redemption of the world. John Paul II explained this beautifully in a 1984 apostolic letter:

“It is especially consoling to note — and also accurate in accordance with the Gospel and history — that at the side of Christ, in the first and most exalted place, there is always his Mother through the exemplary testimony that she bears by her whole life  to this particular Gospel of suffering. In her, the many and intense sufferings were amassed in such an interconnected way that they were not only a proof of her unshakeable faith but also a contribution to the redemption of all. In reality, from the time of her secret conversation with the angel, she began to see in her mission as a mother her ‘destiny’ to share, in a singular and unrepeatable way, in the very mission of her Son. And she very soon received a confirmation of this in the events that accompanied the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and in the solemn words of the aged Simeon, when he spoke of a sharp sword that would pierce her heart. Yet a further confirmation was in the anxieties and privations of the hurried flight into Egypt, caused by the cruel decision of Herod.

“And again, after the events of her Son’s hidden and public life, events which she must have shared with acute sensitivity, it was on Calvary that Mary’s suffering, beside the suffering of Jesus, reached an intensity which can hardly be imagined from a human point of view but which was mysterious and supernaturally fruitful for the redemption of the world. Her ascent of Calvary and her standing at the foot of the Cross together with the Beloved Disciple were a special sort of sharing in the redeeming death of her Son. And the words which she heard from his lips were a kind of solemn handing-over of this Gospel of suffering so that it could be proclaimed to the whole community of believers.

“As a witness to her Son’s Passion by her presence, and as a sharer in it by her compassion, Mary offered a unique contribution to the Gospel of suffering, by embodying in anticipation the expression of Saint Paul which was quoted at the beginning. She truly has a special title to be able to claim that she ‘completes in her flesh’ — as already in her heart — ‘what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’.

“In the light of the unmatchable example of Christ, reflected with singular clarity in the life of his Mother, the Gospel of suffering, through the experience and words of the Apostles, becomes an inexhaustible source for the ever new generations that succeed one another in the history of the Church. The Gospel of suffering signifies not only the presence of suffering in the Gospel, as one of the themes of the Good News, but also the revelation of the salvific power and salvific significance of suffering in Christ’s messianic mission and, subsequently, in the mission and vocation of the Church” (Salvific Doloris, No. 25).

Mary’s “unique contribution to the Gospel of suffering” shows us that suffering is not meaningless. Lent is a special time to remember the sorrows of Mary and to join ourselves to her in offering her divine Son “in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world” (Chaplet of Divine Mercy). There is no better companion for the journey of Lent than Mary. As she leads us closer to Jesus, she will serve as “our life, our sweetness, and our hope.”

Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D., is a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He is former president of the Mariological Society of America.

Marian Activities for Individuals During Lent
Devotion to Mary is a privileged way for deepening our Lenten experience. Asking Our Lady to accompany us as we journey through the 40 days of Lent is an excellent point of departure. Any Marian devotion one pursues during Lent will bring forth many graces and consolations. Because Mary is “our Mother in the order of grace” (Lumen Gentium, No. 61), she will help us in our Lenten journey. If the goal of Lent is to draw closer to Jesus, then devotion to Mary will be a most assured path. As St. Louis de Montfort writes, Mary “is the safest, easiest, shortest and most perfect way of approaching Jesus” (“True Devotion to Mary,” No. 55). Here are some particular ways to put that into practice:

Marian Activities For Families During Lent
During Lent it’s traditional for members of families to announce what they are giving up for Lent. This is a most worthy penitential exercise. But there also are ways to incorporate Mary into one’s Lenten disciplines. Here are a few ideas: