A Litany Revisited

The unfolding story of the Litany of Loreto (16th century), honouring Mary, the Mother of Jesus, continues this month as Fr James Lyons reflects on the two titles, Gate of Heaven and Morning Star.

WelCom November 2023

The unfolding story of the Litany of Loreto (16th century), honouring Mary, the Mother of Jesus, continues this month as Fr James Lyons reflects on the two titles, Gate of Heaven and Morning Star.

Gate of Heaven

Jesus speaks of the keys of the kingdom of heaven [Matthew 16:19] which he gives to Peter – the Rock on which the Church is built. He refers to himself as the gate of the sheepfold [John 10: 7].

The images of key and gate have contributed greatly to our interpretation of heaven as a place, some site or destination towards which we are travelling. Peter has traditionally been cast in the role of gatekeeper, with discretionary power to unlock or seal the entrance. Such an approach invariably conjures fear or, at best, deep anxiety.

Perhaps, even more likely, it can feed the appetite of those who contend that ‘Heaven’ is simply make-believe, a tool to keep people in check: You won’t get into heaven unless…!

Mary’s precedence as the Mother of Jesus, gives her the title in Christian tradition, Mother of the Church (the Body of Christ). Scripture records the scene following the Ascension of Jesus, as the apostles and several of the disciples gathered in prayer to await the gift of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). They gathered with Mary, the mother of Jesus [Acts 1:14]

As the one through whom the Word of God took flesh and entered our created world, Mary offers a way for us to enter the realm of God.

As Gate of Heaven, Mary does not usurp the role of Peter or Jesus. By her strong gentleness and tender, confident love, she eases the way for us to ‘see’ heaven, to bring it more within reach, and thereby more accessible.

Nor should we think of a gate only as a barrier or checkpoint. In human history, the gateway to a town or settlement, while guarding the entrance was primarily a meeting place. It has been known as the spot where business was discussed, public affairs debated, even the site for a trading post or market.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life. Through him, the gate, we enter the sheepfold [see John 10:7-9]. As a gathered people, a pilgrim people with a purpose, we journey homeward, following the call of Jesus, to the God from whom all good things come.

Mary, Gate of Heaven, stands with outstretched arms in welcome of her children. Like a welcoming archway, she signifies shelter, safety, security and peace. There is similar symbolism in the carved wooden panels placed as an inverted V (^) at the entrance to a Marae.

The gate of heaven is open, never closed.

We have that assurance from Jesus in his message to the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure of heart, the ones who seek always what is right and good [see Matthew, 5:1-11]. The reign of God embraces them.

He offers the same promise to those who stumble and fall, who struggle under heavy burdens [Matthew, 11:29-30]. The exhausted   and lame are lifted in spirit to keep moving forward. Through this open gate can be glimpsed, from no matter what distance, the happy excitement of preparations to receive the homecoming.

The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, describes heaven as ‘the home we never left’, dispelling the image of heaven as a place we’ve yet to reach. Catching this vision, that we each are on a journey of discovery, you will find yourself, as Mary did, joyfully and generously lighting the way for one another. 

O gates, lift high your heads,
grow higher, ancient doors.
– Psalm 24

Like an open gate
your life calls welcome.
To enter under your portals
is to tread a sure way.

O Gate of Heaven
draw us through you to Jesus.
Protect the flock that
shelters on your porch.

Sight of you gives
hope and joy to all.
Whole or wounded,
wayward or wandering.

Open wide your arms.
In welcome.

Mary, Gate of Heaven, pray for us.

Pukekaraka, Ōtaki. The gate of heaven is open, never closed – there is similar symbolism in the carved wooden panels placed as an inverted V (^) at the entrance to a marae. Photo: WelCom

Morning Star 

Throughout the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II (now Saint) often invoked Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as the Star of the New Evangelisation. He affirmed this in his Apostolic Letter, At the Beginning of the New Millennium, pointing to Mary as ‘the radiant dawn and sure guide for our steps.’ [NMI, 2001, n.58]

It was a star that guided the Wise Ones to the Christ child, stopping over the place where the child was [cf Matthew 2:9]. This is the role of Mary – a guide to Jesus. She stops where Jesus is, because there is no need to go further. All is complete, everything is fulfilled, in the One who came to ‘make all things new.’ [Revelations 21:5]

The morning star in our sky heralds the approaching day. The night is not completely gone, but you know the greater part is past.

The title, Morning Star, rightly belongs to Mary because of the courage and faithfulness she shows as mother and handmaid of the Lord, [Luke 1]. With her husband, Joseph, she sheltered Jesus at his birth, protected the child from those who sought to kill him and sought him out on the occasion he became lost. She was his star in his growing years. She stood by him when other family members judged him insane.

At the foot of the Cross she accepted to be for each of us what she was for Jesus – a mother. After the Ascension, Mary gathered with the apostles and other disciples, her guiding and healing presence brightening their lives and rekindling their hope as the Church, the People of God, was born. 

Perhaps Mary was the inspiration for Peter’s later advice and the strength of his witness: ‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’ [1 Peter 1:19]. It seems apparent that Mary was the star that guided Peter back from his near despair.

The cluster of stars we know in New Zealand as Matariki, signal a new beginning – a time for planting, for renewing, for starting over. As our Morning Star, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, encourages us to sow seeds of gospel joy, to renew and strengthen faith, to see more clearly the way ahead.

In his reflection, The Mystery of the Incarnation, Cardinal Basil Hume (Archbishop of Westminster, 1976–99), compares faith to a star:

It is in no way as good as the sun,
but it is enough each day to be able to see
perhaps just one step ahead. [p.137]

Morning Star

A hymn to Mary

You appear before sunrise
A herald from night
A beacon to beckon the day

You shine with a brightness
Transforming the dark
A glimmering splinter kindling hope

Morning Star
A spark in a world of darkness
A spot like no other
A gift from the sun
Guiding our way to see light anew.

There is joy in your starlight
Ushering dawn
Showing the way to be free of the dark

Peaceful and tranquil
Your work only done
When tomorrow comes

Morning Star…
Star dust like gold dust
Treasure that shines
Sparkling freshness that keeps hope alive

Morning Star…

Mary, Morning Star, our guide, our light, pray for us.

Morning Star refers to the shimmering light of Venus when it appears in the east just before the sun rises. Mary then is like Venus whose appearance ushers in the sun, the light of the world, Jesus Christ.