Pope Francis and the Feast of our Lady, Untier of Knots

Thanks to the effort of Pope Francis, the feast of Our Lady, Untier of Knots (or undoer of knots), is celebrated on September 28th. Though the feast is still relatively unknown in the United States, it is gaining in popularity. More about this below.

Knots in Greek Drama

In ancient Greek tragedy, the gods insert themselves into the lives of the characters who are encounter intractable or knotty problems. The expression, deus ex machina, (from the Greek, (apò mēkhanês theós), means “god from the machine.” Collectively, the gods are the deus ex machina, who suddenly appear on a mechanical contraption, to provide a contrived. solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. Suddenly, abruptly, in the midst of high drama, they swoop down, intervene, loosen the knot, and resolve the problem. Think Superman minus the machine. Never above mischief, the gods themselves may initiate a problem. The term, deus ex machina, was coined from the conventions of ancient Greek theater, where actors who were playing these gods swooped down onto the stage using what resembled a mechanical swing.

Whereas the gods worked with the speed of lightning to untie knots, modern-day sleuths take a little longer to loose the knot of “who done it” even if they are Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, or Arthur Conan Doyle, mere mortals.

Knots in the Lives of Mary and in Joseph

How many were the knots that Mary experienced? With the angelic message delivered, Mary’s life at Nazareth was thrown into turmoil, as was Joseph’s from his dreams. They were called upon to participate in the drama of salvation. Given their mission to raise Jesus and prepare him for his adult life, the divine plan would not spare them. The grueling ninety-mile trek by donkey to register in the Bethlehem census was long and cold. After the birth of Jesus, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to escape King Herod’s pursuit of destroying his rival. So, like fugitives, they fled to Egypt in the middle of the night. After a time, again in a dream, the angel ordered Joseph to return home. Why would a man like Joseph obey dreams with such steady discernment? Why indeed? Herod had died. The coast was clear. Then came predictions by Simeon and Anna about the Child’s future. The loss of the Child in the temple followed. For Mary and Joseph, it was one stressful event after the other — a series of knots, intimations of the Lord’s passion shared by his parents.

It’s at the wedding at Cana that we see Mary untying a knot for others, at least in its initial stage (Jn 2:1-11). On a day of rejoicing, of wedding bliss, suddenly an embarrassing moment — the stone jars of wine are running on empty. What will the guests say? Mary grasps the urgency before the others. Are you there to see as well? Jesus sees but plans to stay out of this embarrassing moment. The bride and groom are his mother’s friends, not his. She states the problem but skirts the obvious question, “will you?” His ready response: “Not now. It’s not my time.” She signals past him toward the attendants. “Do whatever he tells you;” she takes charge. As the jargon goes, you have to love her cool.

The Story Behind Our Lady, the One Who Unties Knots

The original narrative of Our Lady under this title begins in 1612 in Augsburg, Bavaria in Germany. Wolfgang Langenmantel and Sophia Rentz, husband and wife, belonged to the nobility and were on the verge of a divorce. Over a period of twenty-eight days, Wolfgang sought help from Jakob Rem, a Jesuit priest who prayed with him to Our Lady to untie the knots of their marital problems. They prayed that she untie the marriage ribbon that had bound them together at their wedding ceremony. The divorce did not take place, and together the couple lived a peaceful married life. Years later, to commemorate this turn of events, their grandson, Fr. Hieronymus Langenmantel of St. Peter’s Monastery in Augsburg, commissioned the painting, “Untier of Knots.”

The earliest reference to this depiction of Our Lady is found in the second-century document, Adversus haereses, “Against Heresies,” written by St. Irenaeus of Lyons. In Book III, Chapter 22, he draws a parallel between Eve and Mary. “The knot of Eve’s disobedience,” he writes, “was loosed by the obedience of Mary” (Gen 3:15). In its basic theological meaning, the image symbolizes Mary untying the knot of the first sin and first act of disobedience in the Garden. Here she is actively engaged in the life struggles of men and women.

The painting, oil on poplar, was executed in 1700 by Johann Georg Schmidtner and is cast in the typical Baroque style with its dramatic flair and didactic reference. Flanked by two angels, she is untying knots from a long marriage ribbon which, in the seventeenth century, represented the marital union. It has also come to symbolize the knots that are part of any marriage or knots that become part of any walk of life. At the same time, she presses her foot to crush the head of a coiled (or knotted) serpent. The painting is located in St. Peter’s Church in Augsburg.

Pope Francis and Our Lady, Undoer of Knots

Our Lady’s ingenuity and her practical streak are captured in the title dear to the heart of Pope Francis. While studying in Germany in the 1980s, Jorge Bergoglio was inspired by a Bavarian painting entitled, “Holy Mother, Our Lady, Untier of Knots.” When he returned to Argentina with a copy of that image on a postcard, had an icon struck with this same title. The world’s attention was drawn to the icon when Vatican Radio revealed that Pope Francis had championed the devotion decades before in Argentina. Today, devotion to Our Lady under this title is growing by leaps and bounds. It can touch those beset by sudden illness, sudden financial trouble, sudden “anything.” Devotion to Our Lady under this title is especially popular among married people, given her active role at the wedding at Cana.

There are countless visuals depicting the wedding at Cana but none more telling than that of Giotto, the fourteenth-century Florentine painter.

The fresco is the eighth of twenty-four in the life of Christ painted on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. A lovely panoply of originals inviting prayer, prayer according to the image before one’s eyes. This unusual fresco shows Mary with her hand raised in blessing — yes — as her Son performs the miracle she has initiated. On September 28th, under this title, Our Lady stands with each of us as our greatest advocate in dealing with the various knots in our lives, small, medium, large, inscrutable or intractable. There is no knot that cannot be loosed with Our Lady’s intercession. None. Happy feast day.

O Virgin Mary,

Mother of God, who never refuses to come to the help of your children in need,

Mother whose hands never stop working for the welfare of your children,

moved as they are by the loving mercy and kindness that exists in your Immaculate Heart,

cast your compassionate and merciful eyes upon me and see

the snarl of knots that exists in my life.

Oh Mother! You know the difficulties, sorrow, and pain that I have had because of them.

O loving Mother, I place the ribbon of my life

and this knot (these knots) into your loving hands,

hands which can undo even the most difficult knot.

Most holy Mother, come to my aid and intercede for me before God with your prayers.

I cast this knot into your hands (mention your intention/need) and beg you to undo it,

in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, and for the glory of God, once and for all.

Our Lady, Untier of Knots, pray for us!

Sister Joan L Roccasalvo, CSJ About Sister Joan L Roccasalvo, CSJ

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J,. a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (M.A., Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on Ignatian spirituality, and a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is jroccasalvo@optonline.net.