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Star of the Sea

Star of the Sea

– Answered by Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Q: What is the origin of Mary's title: "Star of the Sea"?

A: Marian star symbolisms generally come in two versions: the six-pointed and the eight-pointed star. The six-pointed which is in fact the star of David (two superimposed triangles pointing in opposite directions, symbol of David's shield according to tradition) is used to highlight Mary's role in salvation as helper in the restitutio perfectionis or reparatrix parentum et totius orbis. It symbolizes the restitution of the original harmony between God and humanity brought about by incarnation and redemption--of which Mary is a 'helper'. The number eight symbolizes salvation and its meaning is derived from Gen 6,18: eight people escaped the deluge finding salvation in the ark (see also 1 Peter 3.20). The eight's day is--according to Augustine--like the first (restitution) with permanent character (perfection).

More generally (independently from the number of radiating points), the star symbolism may be used to articulate one or all of the following characteristics of Mary:

a) Her privileges, in particular, her mission as Mother of the Redeemer, or her holiness (full of grace);

b) Her anticipatory or demonstrative role (forerunner, announcer ...) with regard to Christ ["she is the dawn, Christ the Rising Sun"] and the Trinity;

c) Her role as luminous and enlightening.

The biblical and/or theological foundation of this title (Mary, Star of the Sea) may be based on 1 Kings 18:41-45. This text refers to a little cloud appearing above the sea as a sign of hope, implying that rain will come and free the land from drought. The little cloud (small as a man's hand) seen from Mt. Carmel is believed to be the 'Star of the Sea' and Mary, thus, the sign of hope which announces freedom and renewal. The Carmelites built a church on Mt. Carmel and gave it the title Stella Maris.

The origin of the expression Stella maris is commonly attributed to St. Jerome (d. 420). However, Jerome called Mary stilla maris, meaning a drop of the sea. Perhaps a copyist transcribed this as Stella maris. Other authors recording the same Marian symbol include: Isidore of Seville (d. 636); Alcuin (d. 804); and Rhabanus Maurus (d. 856).

An explicit reference occurs in Paschasius Radbertus (d. 865):

Mary, Star of the Sea, must be followed in faith and morals lest we capsize amidst the storm-tossed waves of the sea. She will illumine us to believe in Christ, born of her for the salvation of the world.
Hincmar of Reims (d. 882) spoke of Mary as 'a star of the sea assumed into the heavens'.

There are also some ancient Marian hymns related to the title: Ave Maris Stella (eigth-ninth century); and Alma Redemptoris Mater (by Hermann of Reichenau, eleventh century).

Very important for this title is the following twelfth-century prayer from St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

If the winds of temptation arise;
If you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation look to the star, call on Mary;
If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary.

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