Very early in this Lent of 2020, we celebrate a votive Mass, which invites us to take our place at the foot of the Cross with the Mother of Sorrows.
Popular piety has identified seven “dolors” of the Blessed Virgin: the prophecy of Simeon; the flight into Egypt; the loss of the Boy Jesus; the meeting on the way to Calvary between Mary and Christ; the death of Jesus on the Cross; Mary’s reception of her Son’s dead body; the placing of that body in the tomb. Only the most heartless, insensitive person would not be moved by that list of sorrowful events, as the Stabat Mater plaintively demands:
Who, on Christ’s dear Mother gazing,
Pierced by anguish so amazing,
Born of woman, would not weep?
Who, of Christ’s dear Mother thinking,
Such a cup of sorrow drinking,
Would not share her sorrows deep?
The gifts of the Magi gave Mary a sneak preview of her future joys—and sorrows. The Infant was King (gold), Priest (frankincense)—and Lamb of Sacrifice (myrrh). Surely, a mother could raise a hearty “Amen” to the first two, but to the third? And here she must have returned in her mind’s eye to the Temple scene not many days before when the old man Simeon prophesied about a sword piercing her heart (see Lk 2:35).
It seems that joys tinged with sorrows (or even overladen with sorrows) was the pattern for the Blessed Mother: Simeon declares the Child responsible for the “rise” of many in Israel, but also for the fall of many; the adolescent Jesus is found among the doctors of the Law in the Temple, but He then reminds His Mother that His real place is not with her; she brims with pride as He enthralls the multitudes with His preaching, but then hears rumblings of dissatisfaction.
Quite naturally, one might be moved to ask how one can experience such bitterness without becoming bitter. The answer lies in the development of compassion, which comes from compassio, the Latin word for “suffering with” another. Our Lady “suffered with” her Son and endeavored to cultivate the same attitudes as He: total abandonment to the will of the Father; unreserved love for a world in need of salvation; a desire to heal and make whole; a willingness to be a victim on behalf of those who did not even know they needed saving. Thus, the union of the minds and hearts of Jesus and Mary resulted in a union of suffering—compassion. This is no cheap “tea and sympathy” approach to life; it is the very essence of what it means to be completely with and for the other. Our Lady epitomized compassion, rendered not only to her Son but even now to all her Son’s brothers and sisters in the Church, of which she is—by God’s design—the compassionate Mother.
Perhaps most amazingly, our Blessed Mother is not only compassionate but joyful as she proclaims in her Magnificat: “My spirit finds joy in God my Savior.” The source of her joy, of course, is none Other than the Holy Spirit. Now we can connect the dots: The Holy Spirit—Mary—joy. If Our Lady is truly the ideal disciple, the one who hears the Word of God, reflects on it, and acts upon it through the Holy Spirit’s presence within her, then she should likewise be the very paradigm of Christian joy.
Joy is to be distinguished from any type of superficial hilarity. Rather, it is the quality which enables us to live our lives here below with calmness and serenity. Hence, six times during Our Lord’s High Priestly Prayer at the Last Supper, we hear Him exhort His disciples to live in joy—a joy, He asserts, which no one can take from us (see Jn 15-16). St. Paul would even command his flock to “rejoice always” (Phil 4:4)—a line which became the introit or entrance antiphon for Gaudete Sunday (the Third Sunday in Advent), while its companion verse (Is 66:10) does similar duty for Laetare Sunday (the Fourth Sunday in Lent), suggesting to us that even in a penitential spirit, the true disciple will have cause to rejoice. Why? Because we view things sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity), that is, from the vantage-point of all things in Christ, who has won the victory for us and in us.
Undoubtedly, this was the joy with which the Blessed Virgin was imbued through all the vicissitudes of her own earthly pilgrimage, as well as the earthly life and ministry of her own dear Son, which became the joys and the sorrows of Mary herself. With that kind of mindset, we can see why the Church wisely invokes her in her litany as “the cause of our joy.”
Our Lady’s sorrows and, from a strictly human perspective, her inexplicable joy in the midst of them gives us the confidence to make our own the final verse of the Stabat Mater:
Quando corpus morietur
fac ut animae donetur
When this earthly frame is riven,
grant that to my soul is given
all the joys of Paradise!
Let’s probe this a bit more. When we talk about “Mary at the foot of the Cross,” the Catholic goes back in his mind’s eye to the scene in John 19, but to get the context, we need to go back yet further—to John 2, the wedding feast of Cana. And that requires even further context—because the Fourth Evangelist was both an extraordinary theologian and a master literary writer.
The Fourth Gospel is often called “the Gospel of the New Creation” because the sacred author seeks to present the life and ministry of Jesus as a return to God’s original plan before the sin of our first parents. Indeed, we get a clue to this when we realize that the first words of this Gospel reprise the first words of the Book of Genesis: “in the beginning.” That original life situation of total harmony between God and man, among human beings, and between man and nature was disrupted by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Christ’s signs of power are acts of restoration, pointing to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. The first of those signs is the Lord’s changing of the water of the wedding feast to the choicest wine. That sign is effected at the behest of Mary, whom Jesus addresses as “woman,” once more evocative of Genesis, where we meet the first “woman.” Mary is God’s answer to Eve.
The next time we meet “the mother of Jesus” (who, interestingly, is never named in this Gospel because she represents more than her personal identity) is at Calvary. Using the Hebraic technique of “inclusion,” the Evangelist presents Our Lady at the beginning and end of her Son’s public ministry, thus having us understand that she who was present at the beginning and the end was there throughout. Just as the first “woman” led the first “man” into sin, so too does this later “woman,” the New Eve, leads the New Adam into the reversal of that sad primordial saga.
Now we behold the New Eve standing courageously and lovingly, not fainting or disconsolate, standing (Stabat Mater) beside the Tree of the Cross which is likewise the divine response to the Tree of Temptation. And the dying Jesus utters His last will and testament: “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” Before Our Lord breathes His last, He wants to ensure not merely a natural protection for His Mother; He desires to bring about a supernatural relationship between the Beloved Disciple (also never named) and “the woman.”
And so, although Mary is losing the Son of her womb, she is being given the gift of a multitude of children in the person of the Beloved Disciple, representative of every believer, for Jesus is “the first-born among many brethren” (Rom 8:29). For his part, the Beloved Disciple (which means you and I) are given the gift of a loving Mother, on whose powerful intercession he (and we) can rely if he does indeed take Mary “into his home.” Taking her “into his home” is more than giving her a room in his house; it means making room in his life for her, who is now his Mother in the order of grace.
With supreme majesty, Jesus “gives up his spirit,” but only after “knowing that all was now finished,” completed, consummated. What brought about that fulfillment? Nothing less than the entrustment of the Beloved Disciple and the Holy Mother to one another. In other words, Christ’s work of redemption would not have been fully accomplished had He not brought about the union of disciple and Mother. Simply put, making room for Mary in one’s life as a disciple is not an “add-on” or worse, inappropriate; it brings the covenant of salvation to completion. The “woman,” who was mildly rebuked at Cana for trying to anticipate Jesus’ “hour,” now receives a divine mandate to be a motherly intercessor for His brothers and sisters in the family of the Church. And so, in the decree establishing the feast of Mary as Mother of the Church—signed by Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in 2018—we hear this all summed up thus:
Indeed, the Mother standing beneath the cross (cf. Jn 19:25), accepted her Son’s testament of love and welcomed all people in the person of the beloved disciple as sons and daughters to be reborn unto life eternal. She thus became the tender Mother of the Church which Christ begot on the cross handing on the Spirit. Christ, in turn, in the beloved disciple, chose all disciples as ministers of His love towards His Mother, entrusting her to them so that they might welcome her with filial affection.
Notice, too, that the sacra conversatio which takes place on Calvary is carried on by the virginal Lord, His virginal Mother, and the virginal disciple, for this is also the moment of the birth of the Church which, like Mary, is both virgin and mother. As blood and water flow from the side of the dead Christ—symbols of the sacramental life of the Church in Baptism and the Eucharist—the Church is born. That realization caused St. Augustine to observe: “Here the second Adam with bowed head slept upon the Cross, that thence a wife might be formed of Him, flowing from His side while He slept.”
There is, however, an intensely human dimension to this scene as well; after all, a mother is losing a son—an innocent son—to a painful and humiliating death. While we can reflect on Our Lady’s stalwart faith, that does not negate the maternal suffering entailed, which was nothing less than the fulfillment of the prophecy of Simeon as the sword of sorrow did truly pierce her own heart. She becomes a co-sufferer with her Son, and that suffering of hers is also meritorious, not just for her but for all her new sons and daughters.
Saint John Henry Newman produced two sets of Stations of the Cross, the longer of which St. John Paul II used on Good Friday of 2001. The former Protestant, for whom Marian doctrine and devotion had been an initial stumbling block to coming into full communion with the Catholic Church, became one of Mary’s greatest devotees. With great pathos, he describes Our Lady’s emotions in the Fourth Station where Mother and Son meet on the road to Calvary. Newman writes:
Jesus rises, though wounded by His fall, journeys on, with His Cross still on His shoulders. He is bent down; but at one place, looking up, He sees His Mother. For an instant they just see each other, and He goes forward.
Mary would rather have had all His sufferings herself, could that have been, than not have known what they were by ceasing to be near Him. He, too, gained a refreshment, as from some soothing and grateful breath of air, to see her sad smile amid the sights and the noises which were about Him. She had known Him beautiful and glorious, with the freshness of Divine Innocence and peace upon His countenance; now she saw Him so changed and deformed that she could scarce have recognised Him, save for the piercing, thrilling, peace-inspiring look He gave her. Still, He was now carrying the load of the world’s sins, and, all-holy though He was, He carried the image of them on His very face. He looked like some outcast or outlaw who had frightful guilt upon Him. He had been made sin for us, who knew no sin; not a feature, not a limb, but spoke of guilt, of a curse, of punishment, of agony.
Oh, what a meeting of Son and Mother! Yet there was a mutual comfort, for there was a mutual sympathy. Jesus and Mary—do they forget that Passiontide through all eternity?
Then in language equal to the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietà, Newman offers this meditation for the Thirteenth Station, full of empathy but also with holy and hope-filled joy:
The multitude have gone home. Calvary is left solitary and still, except that St. John and the holy women are there. Then come Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and take down from the Cross the Body of Jesus, and place it in the arms of Mary.
O Mary, at last thou hast possession of thy Son. Now, when His enemies can do no more, they leave Him in contempt to thee. As His unexpected friends perform their difficult work, thou lookest on with unspeakable thoughts. Thy heart is pierced with the sword of which Simeon spoke. O Mother most sorrowful; yet in thy sorrow there is a still greater joy. The joy in prospect nerved thee to stand by Him as He hung upon the Cross; much more now, without swooning, without trembling, thou dost receive Him to thy arms and on thy lap. Now thou art supremely happy as having Him, though He comes to thee not as He went from thee. He went from thy home, O Mother of God, in the strength and beauty of His manhood, and He comes back to thee dislocated, torn to pieces, mangled, dead.
Yet, O Blessed Mary, thou art happier in this hour of woe than on the day of the marriage feast, for then He was leaving thee, and now in the future, as a Risen Saviour, He will be separated from thee no more.
So, what have we learned from St. John the Evangelist? At Cana, the New Eve launches her Divine Son on His public ministry as He transforms water into wine, prefiguring a yet greater transformation that will occur in the Holy Eucharist as He changes wine into His Precious Blood. At Calvary, the New Eve stands beneath the Cross, in the lovely words of the Preface for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, so “the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered.” In that “hour,” two momentous events occur: the Church is born from the wounded side of her Lord, and that Lord’s Mother becomes our Mother as well. His saving death bestows on us the gift of everlasting life.
In but a few moments, the Mother of Sorrows will bid us join her once more at the foot of the Cross, which is the altar of this church, as the Sacrifice wrought once and for all on Calvary is re-presented, renewed for us. Permit me to suggest that you make your own yet another prayer of Cardinal Newman:
O Holy Mother, stand by me now at Mass time, when Christ comes to me, as thou didst minister to Thy infant Lord—as Thou didst hang upon His words when He grew up, as Thou wast found under His Cross. Stand by me, Holy Mother, that I may gain somewhat of thy purity, thy innocence, thy faith, and He may be the one object of my love and my adoration, as He was of thine.
Editor’s note: this homily preached by the Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of St. Gregory the Great, Plantation, Florida, on 5 March 2020.
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