Tuesday, October 13th, 2020

‘In clipeos aureos’: the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart in the Liturgy of October

The mystery of the Blessed Virgin Mary appears variously in Sacred Scripture, like a theme in a symphony.

In early October, the Church’s course of sacred reading makes its way to the First Book of Maccabees. A Vespers antiphon for the second Sunday of the month strikes the notes of victory:

The sun shone upon the shields of gold and the mountains were resplendent with them: and the courage of the nations was put to rout.[1]

The antiphon is a paraphrase, not a quotation; and it seems to suggest that the shields were those of the Israelites. But the reverse is true, as the biblical text shows in context:

Now when the sun shone upon the shields of gold and of brass, the mountains glittered therewith: and they shone like lamps of fire. And part of the king’s army was distinguished by the high mountains, and the other part by the low places . . .[2]

However, it is certainly not unusual for the sacred liturgy to adapt a given text for this or that purpose. Like the facets of a gem, Sacred Scripture can be viewed first from this angle, then from that, without any diminution of its luster—in fact, to turn the gem in one’s hand only increases its brilliance. It is the same with the Bible. And so, in this case, the reversal is fitting: though the mountains glittered with the shields of the enemy king, his armies gained no swift and decisive victory over the faithful of Israel.

But these shields of gold call to mind another reference. During an extended description of King Solomon’s immense wealth, we read,

And Solomon made two hundred shields of the purest gold: he allowed six hundred sickles of gold for the plates of one shield.[3]

These shields are a sign of his own triumph—a triumph, not of arms, however, but of wisdom:

I myself also am a mortal man, like all others . . . Wherefore I wished, and understanding was given me: and I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me. And I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones . . . . Now all good things came to me together with her, and innumerable riches through her hands.[4]

Of course, the Church has always understood the she of holy wisdom to refer also to she who is the Mother of God. Thus, in some way, the glory and mystery of the Virgin shines out through the golden shields of Solomon.

But the Virgin Mary is connected to the images of arms in another part of the sacred liturgy in this latter half of the year. We remember an antiphon from the office of the Assumption:

You are fair and graceful to behold, Daughter of Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in battle array.[5]

Hardly inappropriate, then, to see reflections of Our Lady in the power of Israel’s ancient military grandeur.

The references may appear somewhat disparate—until we remember that spiritual truths are not communicated by syllogisms alone. Here, in the month of October, the images and associations do hold together. (Need it be said that October 7th is the feast of Our Lady of Victory?) The combination of martial imagery and the mystery of the Virgin Mary amounts to a great sign: it is a sign that appears in the sky of the sacred liturgy, as well as history itself—like the sign appearing in the heavens which St John beheld when the veil was parted:

And a great sign appeared in the heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.[6]

October 13th is the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. The event took place 103 years ago today.

Nevertheless, our point here is not to rehearse the events of the day or provide an apologetic for the message of Fatima. But the point is that the liturgy of October is pointing to the Virgin of Fatima; to the woman who promised a triumph of her Heart.—And triumph is a word distinctly martial in its origin and connotation. Hence, the sun shone with a terrible beauty upon the shields of combat in the days of the Maccabees. And, closer to our time, the same sun danced marvelously over a rain-soaked plain filled with prayer.

The liturgical fittingness of the matter continues. The mystery of Christian combat will appear more clearly in the texts of the breviary and Mass during these autumn months: because Advent approaches, the great season of eschatological struggle and reckoning.

In our time, which becomes more Maccabean by the day, we cannot afford to miss the matter: for indeed, the golden shields of the heroes of Israel prefigure the glimmering triumph of Heart of the Immaculate One.


[1] Antiphon at First Vespers: ‘Refulsit sol in clipeos aureos et resplenduerunt montes ab eis: et fortitudo gentium dissipata est.’ 

[2] 1 Maccabees 6, 39-40.

[3] 3 Kings 10, 16.

[4] Wisdom 7; 1, 7, 8, 11.

[5] Pulchra es et decora, filia Ierusalem: terriblis ut castrorum acies ordinata.

[6] Apocalypse 12, 1.

{Art Credit: detail, The Triumph of the Immaculate (c 1715), Paolo de Matteis (1662-1728); Gemäldegalerie, Berlin}


Our Lady