What to do when choosing music for solemnities of Mary? From solemnities to optional memorials, days celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary appear often on our calendar. Some of these remember a unique moment in the life of Mary. Others embrace a theological reflection rooted in her. To muddy the waters further, the gospels are about Jesus, so any reference to Mary is seen through Christ. Therefore, many of the scripture readings appointed for our liturgical celebrations have a wispy thread to unite them to the celebration.
What shall we sing? Do we simply dust off the same four or so hymns and move on to planning for the next weekend? Sounds like a great idea, unless we really want to give voice to music that supports the unique reason these feasts are celebrated. Unless we really want to offer our God praise and thanks and embrace the wisdom of Mary’s life and “yes” to the Lord.
The traditional hymns are a wonderful place to start as we sing with the ancestors who grew in faith with them. But we can make the liturgy ‘ever ancient, ever new’ if we look at the meaning in the feasts.
In this article, we will look at the three Solemnities of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the General Roman Calendar for the United States and themes and hymns for each.
December 8: The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
This day can be confusing since it falls so close to Christmas. To be clear, we are referring to Mary’s conception by her mother, not Mary’s conception of Jesus. (which is celebrated March 25). The calendar therefore places Mary’s birth nine months later on September 8.
This solemnity was part of the popular devotion of Christian people for centuries and was only solemnly proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854. It is under this title that Bishop John Carroll consecrated the Unites States to Mary.
“The Most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” 1
What does all this fancy theological language mean? The gospel of the day is the Annunciation, which can add to the confusion. The word we can reflect upon is “grace.”
Notice that all is rooted in our triune God: in Almighty God, by the merit of Jesus Christ, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. We honor and recognize Mary and her unique and amazing “yes,” and all praise and worship is directed to God active in her life.
We cannot be Mary. Her role was unique among all of humanity, but each of us in our own way has a role to play as a disciple. At our Baptisms God’s grace sacramentally entered our lives. We too are called to hear God’s call for us, and we too respond.
Perhaps a song or two that reflects discipleship, or God’s grace in our lives could be sung. Songs of our “yes” to God and living in God’s way, like Mary, are also appropriate to the feast.
January 1: The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Are we tired of Christmas yet? A week (octave) afterwards, maybe we’re just tired.
The history of this feast is anything but restful. Like the Immaculate Conception, people were already referring to Mary by this title before it was official. Yes, it is about the Incarnation, hence the placement of the celebration.
The theological debate centered on Jesus’ nature. If one says that Christ is both human and divine, how exactly does this happen? 2 The Nestorian heresy claimed that the two natures were separate, and Mary was only the mother of the human Christ, not the divine Christ. At the Council of Ephesus in 431 the bishops denounced this heresy and affirmed the unity of the human and divine natures of Christ. Therefore, Mary is rightly called Theotokos, God- bearer. For us, Mother of God. 3
Again, the title is rooted in Jesus. Mary’s life is entwined with the work of God and her role, in this case, as Jesus’ mother. So are our lives. In this season we celebrate the Incarnation, when God became one like us in all things but sin. What happens when we allow our lives to be intertwined with God? As the second reading for the day from Galatians says, “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.” We are bonded intimately to our God.
In the gospel of Luke, we hear that Mary, “…kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Do we ever take time to take along look at all that God has done in our lives? Are we amazed by the trust God places in us as daughters and sons, or by the crooked path upon which we walked to this place and time?
These themes of journeying with God, of trust in the mysterious will of the Lord, of pondering God’s love and God’s gracious, unexpected ways are images we can use when choosing songs for the liturgy. Which Christmas songs lean this way? In addition to the carols, are there Marian hymns and beyond that speak of the mystery of God active in our lives?
August 15: The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Again, the official dogma affirms the Church community’s long held belief. It was in 1950 that Pius XII defined, “the Immaculate Virgin, …when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory…” 4 The US Bishops in their catechism also make it clear, “In the mystery of her Assumption, Mary experiences immediately what we all will experience eventually, a bodily resurrection like Christ’s own.” 5
Mary is first disciple, yet we are also disciples. What she has experienced, we too will enjoy. Therefore, resurrection songs are appropriate for the feast.
There is another nuance to consider for the Solemnity of the Assumption. Notice that it was after the atrocities of WWII that the Church decided it was important to officially define this dogma. Yes, resurrection, but a bodily resurrection. Our bodies are gifts and sacred. The horrors that happen to our sisters and brothers’ bodies must be proclaimed to be sinful. Songs that address justice and freedom may also be considered in this liturgy.
When choosing music for solemnities of Mary, there are many options beyond the well-known hymns that honor Mary. While it’s easy to choose a few of the well-known (and often well-loved) hymns and move on to planning the next liturgy, there’s an opportunity to help our communities connect to the deeper meaning of the feast through the songs chosen. Go beyond Immaculate Mary by considering the themes of these feasts and the themes that appear in the readings for the day when selecting music.
- CCC 491, See Pius IX Ineffabilis Deus, 1854, DS 2803. ↩︎
- Lots of heresies of the early church are about this topic. ↩︎
- See CCC 466. ↩︎
- CCC 966, cf. LG 59 , Pius XII Munificentissimus Deus 1950 DS3903 ↩︎
- p.144 (Revision edition 2019) ↩︎
Written by Mary Dumm, D.Min, who is a founding board member of CLEF and the pastoral associate at St. Blase Church in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Additionally, she teaches at Siena Heights University and SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary.
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