It’s probably good that angels can’t feel embarrassment.
If they could, they would surely blush with regret that America’s second-largest city is now named for them: Los Angeles.
The name — as we know it today — was not the intention of the city’s Spanish founders. In 1781 they named it El Pueblo de Nuestra Se√±ora de Los Angeles — the City of Our Lady of the Angels.
The city was named for the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title Queen of the Angels. On some maps and documents, that’s made explicit. Then they added the word Reyna, Queen.
The founders celebrated the city’s first birthday, back in 1782, with a special Mass and solemn procession in honor of the Blessed Virgin. It involved as much spectacle as they could muster: a noisy salute from their firearms, festal music and colorful banners. This remained an annual tradition for more than a century, and it has been renewed in recent years by the Queen of Angels Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
This month the Church honored first the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, on Aug. 15 — the day when God took her, body and soul, into heaven. A week later, the Church celebrated the Queenship of Mary on Aug 22.
Catholics in the Church of Los Angeles should consider it a special (and sweet) obligation to know and honor the Virgin Mary as Queen of Angels. Believers can celebrate more heartily what they understand more deeply.
Mary’s queenship is revealed at the very beginning of the New Covenant. Indeed, the Gospel begins when the Archangel Gabriel approaches her with a remarkable greeting: “Hail, full of grace!” (Luke 1:28).
This encounter is startling when we compare it to the Old Testament meetings between angels and human beings.
Angels are pure spirits, but they often assume some material form in order to be seen by people. Their appearance is usually frightful, because the angels want their earthly clients to understand how relatively weak and impure humans are, compared to angels.
The Prophet Isaiah is ashamed and overwhelmed (See Isaiah 6:5) when he sees the seraphim. Daniel falls unconscious in fright (Daniel 8:15-18). Balaam falls down on his face (Numbers 22:31). And John the Seer does the same (Revelation 19:10).
Yet the Angel Gabriel does not seek to terrify Mary. Instead, he greets her with an honorific title, “full of grace,” that is utterly unique. Bible scholars since the third century have noted that the term (in Greek, kecharitomene) appears nowhere else in Scripture — and, indeed, nowhere else in Greek literature to that point.
The angel recognizes Mary not as his inferior, but rather his superior! He greets her with deference, as a knight should greet his queen. Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is absolutely unlike any other angelic encounter in the Bible.
Readers of Scripture see Mary’s rule of the angels not only at the beginning of the Gospel, but also at the end of the New Testament. In the Book of Revelation, in the account of John’s visions of heaven, the Seer presents “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). She is mother of the “male child … who is to rule all the nations” (12:5). This figure is, for good reasons, traditionally identified as Mary.
John sees her “in heaven” as a royal figure: she wears a crown. More specifically, though, she is crowned with stars. In biblical religion, stars are usually associated with the angels. Later in that same passage, John portrays the fallen angels as falling stars (12:4).
Reigning in heaven as Queen, Mary rules over the angels. Indeed, they are not only her subjects; they are her crown.
Honor through the ages
The early Christians read these Scriptures and heard them proclaimed in the Mass. As they reflected on their meaning, they came to honor Mary in many ways. In some devotional texts they imagine her as a young girl, attended by angels as she worked in the temple.
She was honored also in hymns. In the fourth century, St. Ephrem of Syria cast a hymn in her voice, and he imagined her saying to Jesus: “Let heaven sustain me in its embrace, because I am honored above it. For heaven was not your mother, but you have made it your throne. How much more honorable and venerable than the throne of a king is his mother!”
One of the great songwriters of the Western Church, Venantius Fortunatus, imagined Gabriel’s homage — “full of grace” — to be joined by all “the rest of the angels” in heaven, who in turn repeat the praise “from choir to choir.”
In the seventh century, St. Germanus of Constantinople proclaims that Mary’s “yes” made life better not only for the human race, but also for the angels. Moreover, her consent to bear the Christ marked a decisive moment in history: the healing of a breach that had begun with the sin of Adam — the restoration of the bond between heaven and earth, angels and humanity, God and man. St. Peter Damian, in the 11th century, said that, with Mary’s assumption into heaven, the “beatitude of the sublimity of the angels has increased.”
Saints through all the ages have reflected on the Scriptures and concluded that Mary, at the end of her days, was assumed into heaven. There she took her place “above the angels,” as we see in many sermons and hear in many hymns. There she reigns over the angels. Her office is the supreme honor given to her by her divine Son, Jesus.
The Church has, since the 12th century (and quite possibly before), honored Mary as “Queen of Heaven” in the daily noontime prayer of the Easter Season, the Regina Caeli: “Queen of Heaven, rejoice! Alleluia!”
In 1954, the Venerable Pope Pius XII established the Queenship of Mary as a feast, to be celebrated in the Church each year on Aug. 22, exactly one week after the Solemnity of the Assumption. With his encyclical letter Ad Caeli Reginam (To the Queen of Heaven) he explained his reasons.
But Catholics in Los Angeles hardly need to be told to celebrate. Our reasons are in our DNA — in our very name, El Pueblo de Nuestra Se√±ora de Los Angeles — the City of Our Lady of the Angels.
Our cathedral is dedicated to Mary under that same title. And in the cathedral there is a shrine to her image as it appeared on the garment of St. Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531. In that image she is, of course, attended by angels.
How will you and your family celebrate the feast this year?