Thursday, 21 November 2013

'A Queen of the Race of David'- An Irish Poem on the Virgin Mary


Pictorial Lives of the Saints (1878)


November 21 is the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The sources for this episode in the life of the Mother of God are found in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, which tells us that the parents of Our Blessed Lady presented her for service in the Temple when she was three years old. There she remained until puberty when her marriage was arranged. I was pleased to find an eighth-century Irish poem which reflects this tradition included with Professor James Carney's translations of the poems of Blathmac and the Irish Gospel of Thomas. He says in his introduction:

The poem to the Virgin Mary .. would appear to be of the same date as the Irish Gospel of Thomas, and is simply an effort to assure us that the Blessed Virgin was of noble lineage. The poet was familiar with the view that Mary before her marriage to Joseph was one of the virgins serving in the Temple at Jerusalem. This idea is as old as the Book of James or Protoevangelium which is assigned to the second century.

It is interesting to see that these apocryphal sources were known to the Early Irish Church. I imagine that establishing the ancestral background of the Blessed Virgin would have struck a chord with the Irish writer, given that Ireland's own tribal society took a keen interest in matters genealogical. The poem begins with a clear statement of the tradition that the Mother of God spent her childhood in service reading the Law and the Prophets as a preparation for her great role in salvation history.

III. A Poem on the Virgin Mary

1. Mary is the mother of the little boy who was born on Christmas night: she read the Prophets and the Law until she was experienced in service.

2. The woman was not unstable, the holy maiden was sage; she conceived with steadfastness and glory the well of divine wisdom.

3. Hail to you! whatever may come, O blessed amongst women. Hail! You will receive in your womb a being called Jesus.

4. A being who has been born before worlds, who has given life to the dead; there is not apparent - though it is clear that it is not falsehood - in the Vetus or the Nouum a being like him.

5. The mother who has borne the boy is without doubt ever-virgin; when the place from which she comes is known numerous are her kinsfolk.

6. Of 1 the people who sacrificed the Lamb who were in the city of Zion , of the posterity of Noah and Shem: it is Jerusalem.

7. A maiden of the seeds of the kings, a queen of the race of David; it was no low-class kin in addition to that; the maiden was of the tribe of Juda.

8. The woman was a daughter of Israel, the maiden was of noble race. Mary is the name of the woman who conceived in Bethlehem of Juda.

1= 'She (Mary) is of...'


James Carney, ed. and trans., The Poems of Blathmac Son of Cú Brettan - Together with the Irish Gospel of Thomas and a Poem on the Virgin Mary (Dublin, 1964), xviii; 108-111.

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