Sept 8: Mary the Dawn, Christ the Perfect Day

Today’s feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary probably passes most of us by.  September 8 simply is not a date that evokes our deepest devotion any more, although it is one of the oldest Marian feasts in the liturgical calendar.  The feast’s origins date back at least to the fifth century when a church was dedicated in Jerusalem at the site of what was assumed to be Mary’s parental home and the place of her birth.  The Eastern churches to this day claim the feast of the Nativity of Mary as one of the twelve most solemn feasts in their liturgical calendar.  Its elaborate title speaks to its importance: “The Nativity of our most Holy Lady, the God-Bearer and Ever-Virgin Mary.”

I have a suggestion for how to mark the day: If you do nothing else but ponder the beautiful medieval English text, “Mary the Dawn, Christ the Perfect Day,” as sung by Kathleen Lundquist (available from Amazon, and through the audio Divine Office App), you will have marked this feast day well.


  1. I wonder if your description of this text as medieval is correct. Text and melody: Justin Mulcahy, C.P. (1894-1981), under the pseudonym “Paul Cross.” The hymn first appeared in the Pius X Hymnal (1953).

    1. hmmm, I actually don’t know whether my description is correct — it is simply the description given with this text/song in the Audio Divine Office App.

    2. @Paul F Ford – comment #1:

      Paul, I think it’s a little more complicated than that.

      ‘Paul Cross’ (sometimes cited as ‘Paul Crossung’) is the person who is said to have apparently written the modal melody in 1949 (the melody sung by Bob Hurd on the OCP recording), although this document appears to offer a 1997 copyright date and says the melody is Gregorian (it is certainly modal). Based as it is on the 3rd mode Te Deum and similar chants, it would be difficult to ascribe it to a modern author.

      The authorship of the text is a rather more elusive matter altogether. When I have the ordination of a new bishop off my back, I will do some research into this.

  2. This is my favorite Marian hymn. I discovered it when I started praying the hours. It says so much in such a simple way. I taught it to my children’s choir and arranged it for Orff instruments and recorders. It was such a big hit, we taught it to the assembly as a song of thanksgiving for the feasts of Mary. It’s a great text for meditation. It is actually a contemporary composition written in an ancient manner.
    Very effective. When I taught at St Mary Elementary School, I had the students plan a school mass for this feast. I even composed a song for them to sing. I have no idea where the sheet music is now. My favorite recording of the piece is by the Schola Cantorum St. James Cathedral on the album Receive the Song. You can find it on itunes.

  3. Mary the dawn, Christ the perfect Day.
    Mary the gate, Christ the heav’nly Way.
    Mary the root, Christ the mystic Vine.
    Mary the grape, Christ the sacred Wine.
    Mary the wheat-sheaf, Christ the living Bread.
    Mary the rose tree, Christ the Rose blood-red.
    Mary the font, Christ the cleansing Flood.
    Mary the chalice, Christ the saving Blood.
    Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord.
    Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored.
    Mary the beacon, Christ the haven’s Rest.
    Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision bless’d.
    Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son.
    Both ever bless’d while endless ages run.

    Text and melody: Justin Mulcahy, C.P. (1894-1981), under the pseudonym “Paul Cross.” The hymn first appeared in the Pius X Hymnal (1953); this version is from the hymnal of Our Lady of New Clairvaux Abbey, Vina, California, with two changes from “Mary the stem, Christ the rose: blood-red.” and “By all things blest while endless ages run” and from no capitalization of nouns predicated of Christ.

    Father Justin Mulcahy, C.P., St. Paul of the Cross Province (1894-1981)
    [February 21, 1981 ]

    Born James H. Mulcahy in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 6, 1894, he was the son of John Mulcahy and Margaret Tighe. He attended Cambridge Latin High School from 1908 until 1910, the Burdett Business School from 1910 until 1911. After working for five years he went to the Passionist Preparatory Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland from 1916 until 1917. That year he entered the Passionist novitiate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and professed his vows on October 31, 1918 receiving the religious name Justin. He was ordained on June 14, 1924. After ordination in taught in the Preparatory Seminary. Later he studied at the Pius X School of Liturgical Music in New York City which provided a grounding for his work as professor of liturgical music and formation. After twenty-four years of teaching he was sent to Rome from 1948 to 1950 to obtain a degree in Church Music at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music…

  4. . . . From 1950 he continued to teach until 1963. From that time on he was assigned to Dunkirk, New York; Brighton, Massachusetts; and finally Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

    Passionist Historical Archives []

    See page 84 at “Mary, the Dawn” and page 245 at #770 of the Handbook of American Catholic Hymnals by J. Vincent Higginson (Hymn Society of America, 1976).

    The melody that Bob Hurd sings is the one I taught him in 1970, the Cistercian melody from Vina.

  5. Tha Archdiocese of Glasgow music department (www. stmungo has another
    version with melody by a Noel Donelly. The melody I know, which I learned only by hearing
    and singing at a a music conference here in U.k. , is different again.

  6. Well, we live and learn! I had actually never encountered the hymn until I began to use the audio app for the Divine Office. Makes me also realize how little I continue to know about Catholicism in English-speaking contexts — thanks for all the clarifications.

  7. Teresa, please know that I’m grateful you brought this hymn to our attention. It is my favorite Marian hymn. I was just trying to supply information I found hard to come by when I first fell in love with it in the late sixties and was introducing it to others.

    I’d love to hear the arrangement that Ron Jones mentions.

  8. I’m very happy to accept all the biographical details that Paul F has kindly supplied.

    What I’m questioning is whether the authorship is proven of both text and melody. The fact that something appears in a hymnbook attributed to someone does not necessarily mean that they wrote it. I have recently been involved with the descendants of a Benedictine monk who claimed before his death to have written a text, when the hymnbook in which it was first published claimed (incorrectly, as it happens, and it’s very easy to see how the error must have come about) that someone else did. Back in the 1950s, hymnbook editors were far less rigorous in checking their sources than we are today.

    Sometimes it works differently. A text that two friends and I wrote in collaboration, and which was correctly ascribed to us since we were the editors of the hymnal in question, eventually found its way into the collected works of that great hymn writer, the late James Quinn SJ, only because in his final years when his brain was going he was somehow convinced that he had written it himself, despite the fact that the style is completely untypical of his other work and despite the fact that it was first published with our names attached to it. Now that he is dead, no power on earth can convince Selah that they ought to correct this mistake.

    There are many other instances of mistaken attributions, not to mention textual and musical errors, in the world of hymnody, sometimes even created by errors in deciphering a person’s handwriting. I feel a book coming on!….

  9. Hmmm, and “Paul Cross” could of course also have leaned on an older text and/or paraphrased or developed it, right? Many of the images in the hymn do ring with medieval Marian themes…
    I once created an antiphon out of a scribbled sentence I read in an archive in a tower high above the Main river, where Guardini had once worked, Burg Rothenfels: “what is a shipwreck if God is the ocean”? No idea who wrote that sentence, but it has sustained me for decades now, and made it’s way into music too… Write your book, Paul 🙂

  10. I’m looking at the hymn “Mary the Dawn,” no. 81 in The Pius X Hymnal, revised edition (c) 1956, McLaughlin and Reilly Co., Boston, MA. (The first edition is from 1953.)

    No. 81 states (quite clearly) that the text is “Anon.” and the music is by Paul Cross. The (A.C.) under his name refers to the arranger/harmonizer: Anthony Cirella.

    On the acknowledgment page, special thanks are given for original melodies by several priests, a woman religious, a Benedictine monk, several “Misses,” and “Messrs.” Paul Cross and Cyr de Brant.

    More info. which may or may not be correct. But since I personally knew five of the six members of the Pius X Hymnal Committee (all but J. Vincent Higginson) I would not suspect any of them doing sloppy work!

  11. I’m also very fond of this hymn, which I encountered in Liturgy of the Hours. I also appreciate the biographical details on the author that Paul Ford has provided.

    I wonder if the striking imagery which “Paul Cross” put into the hymn text was inspired by the Akathistos Hymn. An article entitled “Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride: The Akathistos Hymn,” by the NPM Staff, appeared in the December-January 2003 edition of Pastoral Music magazine. The article, which includes an English translation of the entire hymn, is available in .pdf format at this link. (The article begins on p. 21; the hymn text, which is lengthy, on p. 22).

    Here is just one portion from the First Oikos:

    Rejoice! by whom joy will be enkindled!
    Rejoice! by whom the curse will be quenched!
    Rejoice! O recall of fallen Adam!
    Rejoice! O deliverer of weeping Eve!
    Rejoice! O height unattainable to human reasoning!
    Rejoice! O abyss unsearchable by angelic eyes!
    Rejoice! for you are the throne of the King!
    Rejoice! for you are the Bearer of all!
    Rejoice! O star giving rise to the Sun!
    Rejoice! O womb giving flesh to God!
    Rejoice! by whom creation is renewed!
    Rejoice! by whom the Creator is worshiped!
    Rejoice! O unwedded Bride!

  12. Thanks for drawing attention to this somewhat overlooked feastday. We are fortunate that the cathedral in Juneau, Alaska, is named for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (thanks to the Sisters of St. Ann who served here in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th centuries). So, at least for those of us in our parish, this feast day is a big celebration each year.

    In preparation for the feast next September, I’d recommend taking a look at the famous Serbian fresco of the Nativity of Mary in Studenica.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.