By Prof. Michael Ogunu
The word “litany” is derived from the Latin word litania, meaning prayer of invocation or intercession. Among the Litanies which the Catholic Church has approved for official use are the Litany of the Saints, probably the oldest, the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus (1886), the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1899), the Litany of Saint Joseph (1909), the Litany of the Precious Blood (1960) and the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Litany of Loreto).
The Litany of the Blessed Virgin was originally approved in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V. It is also known as the Litany of Loreto from the famous Italian Shrine where its use is attested for in the year 1558 (but its existence far antedates this year). There seems little doubt that the Litany dates from between 1150 and 1200 and was probably of Parisian origin, or its environs.
The 1587 version of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin was subsequently enriched with new advocations. Thus, in 1675, “Queen of the most Holy Rosary” was added for the Confraternities of the Holy Rosary. In 1883, “Queen Conceived without Original Sin” was added by Pope Leo XIII. In 1950, Pope Pius XII added “Queen Assumed into Heaven”. In 1980, the Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship directed that the invocation “Mother of the Church” be inserted at the proper place. Lastly, Pope John Paul II added “Queen of Families” in 1995.
In this article, the 13 symbolic titles of Our Lady in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary will be explained as most Catholics do not fully understand their hidden meanings when they recite the Litany. The 13 titles are as follows:
(1) Mirror of Justice, (2) Seat of Wisdom, (3) Cause of Our Joy, (4) Spiritual Vessel, (5) Vessel of Honour, (6) Singular Vessel of Devotion, (7) Mystical Rose, (8) Tower of David, (9) Tower of Ivory, (10) House of Gold, (11) Ark of the Covenant, (12) Gate of Heaven, (13) Morning Star.
- Mirror of Justice: As explained in a book entitled Our Lady in Catholic Life, by Lawrence G. Lovasik (The MacMillan Company), in biblical language justice is the perfect observance of God’s commandments. Mary was perfectly responsive to the will of God; thus, she is the reflection (mirror) of God’s own holiness. She mirrors the holiness of God. She is the “mirror of justice”.
When our Lady is called the “Mirror of Justice”, it is meant to say that she is the Mirror of sanctity, holiness and supernatural goodness.
- Seat of Wisdom: Mary is called the “Seat of Wisdom” because wisdom became incarnate in her Son Jesus whom she carried in her womb. And she herself possessed and practiced true wisdom in the highest degree.
Mary has this title in her Litany because the Son of God, called in Scripture the Word and Wisdom of God, once dwelt in her, and then, after His birth, He was carried in her arms and seated in her lap in His first years. Thus, being as it were, the human throne of Him who reigns in heaven, she is called the “Seat of Wisdom”.
- Cause of Our Joy: The moment Mary’s greeting sounded in Elizabeth’s ear, the baby leapt in her womb for joy (Luke 1:44).Mary is cause of our joy because, under God, she gives us Jesus, the Source of all joy. Mary is also cause of our ever increasing joy, because she always unites us —if we pray her Rosary—to the Heart of Jesus.
- Spiritual Vessel: The noun “vessel” as used in this title imperfectly expresses the intended meaning of this advocation. The Latin “vas” (vessel) is used to translate the Greek term “skeuos” which does not only mean vessel but also instrument or tool. Thus, the expression “spiritual vessel” should be rendered as “instrument of the Holy Spirit”. Mary is both the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit and dwelling place of Jesus Christ in the Incarnation. Mary received this title because she is the perfect vessel of the Holy Spirit, who dwelt in her by the fullness of His grace.
- Vessel of Honour: This title was given to Mary because she, more than any other human person, deserves to be honoured as the one whose body conceived and gave birth to the Son of God. The meaning of the title can be best understood from the following excerpt from Cardinal Newman’s praise of Mary:
MARY, we praise thee as the Vessel of Honour because thou art the Mother of God. If everything in any way connected with Christ our Savior is venerable, what an object of honour thou must be to us! As Mother of Christ thou standest in closer relationship to Him than any other creature in heaven or on earth. Thou art a living tabernacle of God, in whom the only-begotten Son of God dwelt for nine months. He rested in thy arms and received nourishment from thy hands. But Jesus not only dwelt in thee; He even assumed human flesh of thee, thou art His Mother. Thou art more worthy of honour than any creature because thou art the Mother of Him who created and governs the world and who is thy Creator. Thou hast nourished Him by whom all living creatures are sustained. All the angels and saints of heaven pay thee homage because of thy exalted dignity and unsurpassed glory; all Christians place their confidence in thee; and the souls in purgatory look to thee for help. Thou art the brightest adornment of the heavenly kingdom, the delight of the faithful, the honour of mankind. Thy prophecy is truly fulfilled: “Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
- Singular Vessel of Devotion: The word devotion as used in this titleexceeds the narrow meaning of devotional practice and refers to total dedication and fidelity in the service of God. Mary’s profession of faith, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord…,” most adequately expresses the meaning of this advocation. Her total dedication goes to her Son. Total dedication has not only the meaning of service. It refers primarily to openness and receptivity of God’s will and grace. Devotion in its true sense means a cheerful promptness and alacrity in all that relates to God’s service, in all the duties of religion, and in all the duties of life, considered as the expression of God’s Will in our regard. In Mary, we at once see devotion in its true light. God, Her Divine Son, was the one end and aim of her life. She lived simply wholly for His service. Her heart was a burning thurible for which there ever ascended as an incense of sweetest fragrance, holy desires, acts of love, praise and thanksgiving.
- Mystical Rose: The rose is regarded as the queen of flowers. Goodness and holiness flower in the saints. Mary, the queen of saints, can be called then the “Mystical Rose” and in her are found the mystical mysteries.
As the rose is considered the queen of flowers, so Mary is invoked as Queen of All Saints. As described by sacred writers, she is the “mystical rose without thorn”, the “rose of paradise”, and the “rose bringing salvation to all who call upon her”.
- Tower of David: The Tower of David is a biblical phrase from Song of Songs 4:4“Your neck is the Tower of David, a display of trophies, a thousand bucklers hang on it, all of them worn by heroes of war”.
It speaks of the love of the king towards a woman which is an analogy of God’s love to human soul. The verse is not only praising the woman’s physical beauty but rather of the inner beauty of her heart. She is likened to a Tower of David on which hangs the trophies of war and the different shields of the soldiers and generals. The tower is the manifestation of the virtues and glories of the Lord found among the saints who are the soldiers of Christ. Mary is the Tower of David because being full of grace and highly favoured of God, the beloved of God [cf. Lk 1:28] she is also blessed with manifold virtues.
- Tower of Ivory: The Tower of Ivory is a symbol of purity. It means Mary is pure in body and soul; for that, she is most beloved by God: Song of Solomon 7:4 “Your neck is like an ivory tower”. Ivory is known for being precious and pearly white. It signifies God’s love for Mary as the highly favoured one and the grace of being immaculate as She is protected by God the Father from the poison of Satan [cf. Gen 3:15].
Mary is called the Tower of Ivory, to suggest to us, by the brightness, purity, and exquisiteness of that material, how transcendent is the loveliness and the gentleness of the Mother of God.
- House of Gold: House of Gold is an ancient biblical symbol related to the temple of God in Jerusalem which God Himself commanded to be covered with gold so that it will be worthy to be His dwelling place on earth.
Chapters 6 and 7 in First Kings describe the temple that Solomon built. The author writes that the entire temple was overlaid with gold! (6:22) So, too, the altar and many of the furnishings were of gold (7:48-50). Mary was the temple of God; her womb “housed” the Lord. She is the “House of Gold.”
The title denotes Mary’s personal perfection and her privilege of divine motherhood. She was the house wherein God dwelt during the nine months in her womb, and for his sake she was a house of gold, adorned by the Creator with the most precious virtues.
- Ark of the Covenant: In Chapters 25 and 40 of Exodus there is a description of the Ark of the Covenant. It was a symbol of God’s presence to Israel. And in the ark were placed the Commandments of the Law—God’s covenant with Israel. Mary was the “Ark of the Covenant” in the sense that her womb contained the maker of the Law; she made God present to mankind in the incarnation of the Son.
The Marian interpretation of the Ark of the Covenant has been known since the Council of Ephesus. Several analogies can be established between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant: the Ark was the throne of God, Mary is the true “Christophora”; the Ark contained the tables of the law, Mary’s womb bore the one who is the law of the new covenant; the Ark was precious and beautiful, made in gold, Mary’s soul is adorned with the beauty of her virtues; the Ark was a guarantee for victory, Mary has been victorious in the battles of God (Pius XII); the Ark found a place in the inner “sanctum” of the Temple, Mary was assumed into heaven.
- Gate of Heaven: Gate of Heaven refers to the fact that Jesus passed through the womb of Mary. So, Mary is like the Gate of Heaven that gives us the Messiah and the King of all.
Mary is called the Gate of Heaven, because it was through her that our Lord passed from heaven to earth. The Prophet Ezekiel, prophesying of Mary, says, “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. The Prince Himself shall sit in it…” (Ezekiel 44, 2-3).
- Morning Star:The Morning Star is the one which precedes the rising of the Sun just as Mary preceded the coming of the Son of God. Just as the Morning Star precedes the sun, announcing the dawn of day, so the Blessed Virgin Mary precedes Christ the Son of Justice, announcing the day of salvation. Through Her coming, the whole world was enlightened. Mary was truly the bright Morning Star of that blissful day when the world saw the divine sun of its redemption arise upon it.
Prof. Michael Ogunu is the Coordinator of the World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa.
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