In many a parish, it’s a grand honour for the girl chosen to crown the Blessed Virgin at the May Crowning. In recent years in our parish, we’ve expanded the tradition to include the rest of the children as well.
Each child is encouraged to arrive with a hand-picked flower from the garden at home. The children form a procession and, while the opening antiphon for Mass is chanted, each arrives in turn at the statue of Our Lady to make a gift. The flowers multiply into a bouquet as child after child makes a contribution. Finally, with a vase full of parish flora at her feet, she is crowned with a wreath of roses.
May is when the flowers in many domestic gardens begin to bloom in earnest. The Sword Lily puts out its paper-thin, translucent purple and white, the Lily of the Valley arrays its delicately scented tresses, and the impatiens puts on the jewellery known as Our Lady’s Earring.
The medieval poet Chaucer describes Mary as “the Flower of Flowers”; the antiphon for the May Crowning proclaims that God has made his mother queen over the whole world. This is how May has come to be the month of Mary. She is the purest flower of the field.
When Mary appears to her children, she is often accompanied by flowers. At Guadalupe, flowers bloom in the desert and Juan Diego is sent running to the bishop with a shirt full of roses. When she appears at Lourdes, she fulfills the ancient prophecy from Canticles, “I am the rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley.” The Litany of Loretto gives her the title “Mystical Rose”.
Over the centuries countless flowers have been named in Mary’s honour and have come to symbolise aspects of her motherhood and femininity. There is no way to list them all, such is the abundance of grace. She arrays herself in the beauty of the field – Our Lady’s Slipper, Our Lady’s Mantle, Our Lady’s Tears, Our Lady’s Milk Drops, Our Lady’s Lace. Many flowers are said to have been present in the stable on the night Christ was born, perhaps even blooming in his manger as divine bedding – Holy Hay, Cradlewort, Our Lady’s Bedstraw.
Mary is also connected to various flowers through shape and colour. For instance, St Bede saw the translucent lily petal as a symbol for the purity of her soul. St. Bernard sees heaven reflected in floral golden hues such as the Marigold or “the golden Gillyflower of heaven”. He apprehends the beauty of Mary’s humility in the colour purple and glories in “the violet of humility”.
St Francis Borgia says, “God has left us from Paradise three things: the stars, the flowers, and the eyes of a child.” Flowers are spiritual reminders that God is bringing his children into a new Eden. The flowers themselves, once cut, will wither: fitting sacrifices of beauty, a reminder of our Mother whose whole life was made a gift to her Son.