Sunday, November 22, 2009

Back to Mary, the Virgen de la O

It's called the Camino of St. James, and his relics allegedly rest in the crypt of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. But the route really belongs to Mary. We started our trek at the Hotel Eslava in Pamplona, located in a plaza abutting the western edge of Pamplona's fabled city walls. The plaza was dedicated to the Virgen de la O. Lisa and I entertained ourselves for hours trying to imagine what that "O" might stand for. I finally settled on the most mundane of meanings: "Oest" or "west," simply because that was the plaza's prospect.

Thanks to liturgical geographer Daniel Johnson for setting me straight and referring me to:

The truth of the Virgen de la O is much more interesting. "O" refers to the "O" antiphons, a series of traditional monastic prayers used at the vespers during the last days of Advent. The prayers anticipate Christ as fulfilment of divine promise, as the answer to ancient longing:

December 17: O Wisdom from on high (O Sapientia)
December 18: O Lord of might (O Adonai)
December 19: O Root of Jesse (O Radix)
December 20: O Key of David (O Claves)
December 21: O Dayspring from on high (O Oriens)
December 22: O Ruler of all nations (O Rex gentium)
December 23: O Emmanuel (O Emmanuel)

You'll recognize the "O" antiphons as verses to the Advent carol "O come, O come, Emmanuel." Backwards the first letters of the Latin titles spell: "cras ero!" "Tomorrow I will be with you." And indeed, the "O" antiphons end the day before Christmas Eve, the night of Jesus' birth. Chanting these antiphons, medieval monks inserted themselves into the mystery of the incarnation. Let the carol play as the soundtrack to the icon above.

The Virgen de la O is the human side of that mystery. She appears pregnant, for it will erupt from her body. Imagine what must be going through her head. She was pregnant against her will; she was engaged to someone who was not the father of her child -- and knew it. According to law, she could be stoned. Indeed, we're told that Joseph intended to "dismiss her quietly" (Matthew 1:19) after the birth of the child, so as not to expose her to public disgrace. Despite the complacency of the image above, Mary must have been terrified.

Medieval Spanish piety gets this, for one of the most popular images along the Camino depicts Mary with seven swords coming out of her heart. This is a graphic depiction of the "seven sorrows." By all accounts, though, that's a very low estimate.

St. James gets to be a knight, slaying whomever the locals were afraid of. But Mary is closer to real life.

O Virgen de la Camino: we remember you in this season too -- and all for whom and with whom you stand!

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