Have you ever looked at something you really wanted — perhaps a special gift, or a puppy or a job description — and said to yourself, “Oooooh,” meaning “I really, really want that.”
Just savor that feeling a moment. Feel it deep inside, drawing air right out of you in a long moan.
Now, think about longing for a baby. Think about the world longing for one special baby.
Then you have just a touch of the feeling of a little known feast in church history called, “Our Lady of the O.” It fell — and is still celebrated by some — on Dec. 18. Exactly one week before Christmas.
Also knows as “The Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” this feast started in Spain.
The celebration is connected to the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, which falls on March 25. In earlier days of the church, the celebration of feast days was prohibited during Lent. And March 25 very often falls during Lent. (Today, we celebrate the Annunciation on March 25, unless that date falls during Holy Week, a Sunday during Lent or during the Octave of Easter).
So, in the year 656, the 10th Council of Toledo in Spain transferred the celebration of the Annunciation to Dec. 18. Eventually, this custom spread to the entire church in the West. It remained this way until the middle of the last century, when the General Roman Calendar was altered several times, starting with Pope Pius XII in 1954.
Longing for the savior
The reason the feast was called “Our Lady of the O” is because of that day’s vespers (evening prayer). The choir or the members of religious orders, for this day, would end its prayers with a loud and drawn-out “O.” This served to remind those in prayer and those who heard them, that the universe was longing for the coming of the Savior.
Dominican Br. Thomas Davenport, of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C., explains why his community still marks this Dec. 18 feast: “This feast of Our Lady of the Expectation takes the opportunity to contemplate the great longing and anticipation of Advent, in which ‘all creation is groaning in labor pains,’ through the eyes of her who, above all creatures, longed to see the face of Christ, and whose expectation truly was palpable in every fiber of her body.”
In our country, there are not that many images of a pregnant Virgin Mary. However, a beloved image that comes from Mexico does serve to remind us of Mary’s waiting for the birth of her child.
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe — whose feast day is Dec. 12 — has many symbols familiar to the Aztec people of 1531, the year Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego. Two of these symbols that indicate that Mary appeared in her pregnancy are the black sash tied at her waist — resembling a maternity belt worn by Aztec women — and the one flower with four petals on her robe, placed directly over her womb.
The jasmine flower
According to the native people around Mexico City, the four-petalled jasmine flower symbolized the four directions of creation, as well as their sun deity. When the four directions came together, as they do in the flower, the belief was that a great event that would change the course of history was about to happen.
The great event of Christmas is about to happen. In a little over a week, we will celebrate the birth of the Son of God himself. It’s something we all long for, something we feel deep inside. That’s more than enough reason to echo Mary with an expectant and prolonged “O.”
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; aleteia.org; domincanajournal.org; catholicism.org; vultuschrist.org; secretsoftheimage.org (Knights of Columbus); and mariancalendar.org