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Celebrating the pains of a blessed labour

December 16, 2011
Six o’clock in the morning of a December 16  on a island planted in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, church bells ring.  It is the first day of a Christmas novena on the Portuguese island of Madeira. The novena is called Missas do parto, or Labour Masses.
These Masses happen early in the morning and their purpose is to celebrate the nine months of Virgin Mary’s pregnancy. The liturgy is meant to make the faithful meditate on each step of Our Lady’s pregnancy, from the annunciation to labour on the night of December 23. The novena concludes on Christmas Eve with Midnight mass.
The early morning Masses are part of a traditional Iberian Marian devotion to Our Lady of Good Labor, represented by a figure of a pregnant Mary.  In Portuguese this Lady is also called Our Lady of the “OH”, recalling the sounds of a mother in labour.
When we think of pregnancy we think of the beauty of bringing life into the world.  Mary life to the world like no other. Christ our savior, was in her womb and through these nine days the people of Madeira contemplate every moment of that pregnancy to prepare for Christmas.
The liturgies of the novena begin with the invocation of the Holy Spirit in thanks for the Immaculate Conception, followed by the Litany of Our Lady and songs in praise of labour and rejoicing in birth. The songs have stayed the same for at least a century. Some of the hymns came from the first colonizers of the island in the 15th century.
These masses have the unique ability to get all the people of the island walking the same path towards Christmas. Proof of the uniting effect of the novena can be found in the moments of celebrating after Mass when the faithful sing, eat honey bread and drink poncha, a traditional drink from Madeira.
This type of tradition makes me think of the role of Mary in the Nativity and how the people of God recognize her importance to the message of Christ. She accepted to be the door through which salvation came to the world.
As bells ring and the Savior is born, the people of Madeira bless Mary our mother for accepting the will of God and for the example of dedication and sacrifice she gave to us.

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