May is a month to celebrate and honor our Mother Mary. This is because it’s the month when the flowers in our gardens begin to bloom in earnest. As new life springs forth, it’s natural to make the connection to motherhood. Mary is not only the mother of Our Lord, but the Mother of all creation. Flowers are a wonderful sign of the beauty of our relationship to her.
There’s a long tradition of honoring Mary with flowers, and the medieval writer, Chaucer, writes that Mary is the “Flower of flowers.” That tradition is alive and well today. For instance, Pope Francis has a habit of bringing her a bouquet when he visits a Church for the first time. He is one of many who, over the years, have done so, and I notice that here at Epiphany flowers often mysteriously appear at her statue. The practice of bringing her flowers is so common, in fact, that these bouquets used to have a proper name, “Assumption Bundles,” because they were often gifted to her to celebrate the day she joined Jesus in Heaven.
This is the background to the May Crowning, in which a crown of flowers is placed upon the brow of Our Lady. We’re having ours here at Epiphany this weekend.
You probably know a number of Marian hymns, and in them it isn’t unusual that she is described as the purest, most beautiful flower. In visual art, Mary is also compared to a flower and is often depicted either holding a flower or with flowers nearby. Because of this connection, over the centuries countless flowers have been named in her honor and symbolize aspects of her motherhood. I truly do mean “countless.” If I started listing them all, it would take a long time.
Here are a few, though, if you’re interested:
Impatiens is known as Our Lady’s Earring because Mary heard the word of God and responded.
Roses and Lilies are connected to her through the ancient prophecy, “I am the rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley,” and roses and lilies were both found in her empty tomb after her Assumption to Heaven. St. Bede saw the translucent petal of a lily as a symbol for her soul, and it is fitting that a variety of white day-lily tends to bloom during the time of the feast of the Assumption
Violets, which are in bloom right now, bring to mind a reference from St. Bernard who says Mary is “the violet of humility.”
There are a number of flowers simply named in her honor such as Our Lady’s Slipper, named for her visit to her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country. Our Lady’s Mantle, Our Lady’s Tresses, Our Lady’s Tears, and Our Lady’s Milk Drops…the list goes on.
Milk Thistle, believe it or not, is literally named “Mary” in the Latin classification: Silybum Marianum
Marygolds symbolize Mary’s glory and place in heaven with the saints.
Irises, which are starting to bloom right now, are also called “Fleur de Lis” or “Sword lilies.” The iris symbolizes Mary’s sorrow and the sword that pierces her heart at the fate of her Son.
For those who are serious gardeners, you can combine any of these flowers into a Mary Garden, which is a serene, natural place to calm the soul and honor Our Lady. And of course, all of the beauty of flowers brings to mind Paradise and the Garden of Eden. This is why we keep flowers in Church as much as possible, because this is a heavenly reality we inhabit here.
I find it interesting that even though Our Lady is the Queen of Heaven, we don’t crown her with gold and jewels. Instead we use flowers. It’s like when a small child picks a dandelion in the yard and brings it in to mom. Flowers are the treasures that children bring to their mothers. Motherhood is sacred, and it is beautiful, and without it we do not have the Incarnation, we do not have Jesus.
Pope Benedict, in his letter “God is Love,” writes, “Mary is a woman who loves.” This is her gift to us, and this is the gift of motherhood. We love her and she loves us. Sometimes God can seem very distant. He’s an old man with a massive gray beard. He is an avenging judge. That’s not the whole of the picture and God is also gentle and very present in our souls, but it can seem that way, and when we do feel distant from God, it helps to remember that he has a mother and that she is our mother, too. We can offer her something beautiful, even if it’s just a weed from the yard and, as mothers do, she will place it in a vase in the center of the dining room table and act like we just brought her the greatest thing in the world.
This is the heart of it, we bring our gifts, as poor as they are, and our devotion is met with absolute, total acceptance. When we place our own lives as gifts upon the altar, Mary gathers us up like a bouquet and presents us to God as the most beautiful gift that could possibly be given. In that grace-filled action we come to understand we are never far from God, and that he cherishes us more than we could ever imagine.