Loving Mother of Our Redeemer
Who doesn’t want a loving mother? Or, if we need to win the favor of a powerful person (a King, for instance), how could we pass up the opportunity of having his Mother put in a good word for us? That’s the dual promise of the Alma Redemptoris Mater.
The first few words tell us that Mary is the Alma Mater of our Redeemer, Jesus. The American English translation of the prayer that we see in the Liturgy of the Hours translates the word alma as “loving.” It does mean that, but that’s not it’s first meaning. The literal meaning is “nurturing” or “nourishing.” That’s why the mouth, throat, etc. is called the “alimentary tract.” It’s the passageway for nourishment to come into our body.
Our Adopted Mother
For that reason, the term alma mater itself used to mean a nursemaid, or wet nurse. This is why we often call a school we attended our alma mater. Just as a wet nurse nurses a little baby on behalf of the natural mother, our school nurtured us in loco parentis. Mary likewise is a nurturing mother to us, beyond our biological mothers. As Pope St. John Paul II explains in his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater:
In accordance with the eternal plan of Providence, Mary’s divine motherhood is to be poured out upon the Church, as indicated by statements of Tradition, according to which Mary’s “motherhood” of the Church is the reflection and extension of her motherhood of the Son of God. (Redemptoris Mater, I.24)
What that means for us is that we can call on our adopted, spiritual mother to intercede for us with her son by birth, Jesus Christ.
Falling and Struggling to Rise
Because of her intercessory role she is the “accessible gate of Heaven” (pervia caeli Porta). Sadly, the American English translation lacks the word “accessible,” pervia. Next, we address Mary with a title familiar from another prayer, Stella Maris, “star of the sea,” our guiding star.
The image that follows is one for which I’ve always felt a strong affinity, the “falling people who struggle to rise again” (cadenti,/ Surgere qui curat populo). The Latin also nicely evokes the falling and rising of the sea (a fitting complement to Stella Maris). Cadenti, “falling,” ends one line on a solemn note, immediately followed by surgere, “to rise,” the word that begins the next.
We complete the first half of the prayer with our first plea for our Blessed Mother’s aid. The Latin verb, succurrere, literally means “run up” to help.
“You who bore, to the wonderment of nature, your own Holy Creator.”
Nativity scene with the newborn Christ mural Franciscan Church Shepherd`s Fields near Bethlehem. Image shot 1990. Exact date unknown.
To the Wonderment of Nature
The second half of the prayer again reminds us that Mary’s importance comes through her connection to her son Jesus, again with some wonderful imagery:
tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
“You who bore, to the wonderment of nature, your own holy Creator.” The incarnation is so astounding that all of creation looks on in amazement. I always picture the animals that are traditionally pictured around Jesus in the manger. Now we know what they were thinking.
Nature might well wonder at the next point as well. Mary remained a “virgin before and after” (Virgo prius ac posterius), because Jesus wasn’t conceived in the usual way. Rather, The Holy Spirit came upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her (see Luke 1:35) at the time of the Annunciation. The time, as the prayer puts it, “When she received that “Hail” from the mouth of Gabriel” (Gabrielis ab ore / Sumens illud Ave).
We Are Not Unstained
Our second petition comes after this reminder that the Blessed Mother remains unstained by sin. Here we acknowledge that we need her help, because we are not equally unstained: peccatorum miserere, “have pity on us sinners.”
The Alma Redemptoris Mater is specifically associated with the seasons of Advent and Christmas, most likely because of the references to the Incarnation and the Annunciation in the final lines. We sing or recite it at the end of Compline, the closing liturgical prayer of the day, from the first Sunday of Advent through the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd.
Tradition holds that it was composed by Blessed Hermann of Reichenau, a Benedictine monk who lived in the eleventh century. Blessed Hermann, also known as Hermann the Cripple, was well acquainted with suffering and difficulty. From the beginning of his life he suffered from what seems to have been amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or spinal muscular atrophy. Hermann had great difficulty walking and talking. He also lost his sight before his early death at the age of 41.
He rose above his disabilities, however, to become an outstanding scholar in theology, mathematics, astronomy, and history. After the loss of his vision he dedicated himself to composing prayers and hymns (the Alma Redemptoris Mater being a fine example). Most importantly, like his fellow disability sufferer St. Servulus, he never let his sufferings dampen his joy in sharing Christ’s Gospel.
Please find the Latin and English Text of the Alma Redemptoris Mater below the video clip.
Alma Redemptoris Mater
Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, sucurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem,
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.
Loving Mother of the Redeemer
Loving mother of the Redeemer,
gate of heaven, star of the sea,
assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again,
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before,
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us poor sinners.