Pope Francis recently invited us to reflect on the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Fr. Liam Tracey, OSM has shared with us some of the history and development of this devotion. As we enter more deeply into Holy Week in 2020, what might reflecting on these sorrows mean for us today?
The Seven Sorrows of Mary include:
– Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart
– the flight into Egypt
– worry when the child Jesus could not be found because he was in the temple
– meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary
– seeing Jesus on the cross
– witnessing Jesus, lifeless, being taken down from the cross
– seeing Jesus being buried in the tomb
These are images of the Blessed Mother being in relationship. Like the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, the sorrows highlight moments from her life that are painful precisely because of her deep love for Jesus.
Sometimes we think of Mary as celestial Queen of Heaven, sinless, perfect in every way, far above every normal human experience. She can seem to represent a holiness so unattainable that we hardly dare try to be like her. The Sorrows, by contrast, present her in her profound humanity, in relationship with the very human Jesus, her own son. When we can imagine her thoughts and feelings coming out of these moments with Christ, we are invited to see him with her, with a deeply rooted human love. We are moved to compassion for both of them. Such a practice then invites us to experience graced compassion for our fellow humans. By love for neighbor we are led to love for God, and then back again.
In Simeon’s prophecy (Luke 2:25-35), we can imagine the new parents offering their child to God. Like almost every young mother, Mary must have been in awe of the utter perfection of her new baby. She would wish only good things for him, protection from every danger – and then to hear that it would not be so? It must have been a shock. After all the miracles that had brought her to this point, she must have known being the mother of the Messiah would be different. And yet, one would expect a Messiah to mean elevation, not pain and opposition. She gets a blast of harsh reality right from the start. How many parents have such high hopes for their children, only to enter into suffering when the world takes them down bitter paths?
The opposition prophesied by Simeon comes quickly as the family is forced to flee into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). How must Mary have grieved that someone would want to kill her son? How fearful that journey must have been, trying to avoid the dangerous powers of brutality. So many mothers today flee with their children to avoid the violence in their home country, only to be met by further opposition in the land in which they hope to find shelter. As Christians, can we not offer them better?
When Mary and Joseph lose Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52), it can be easy to take a breath and chuckle at the almost-cockiness of the young Jesus starting to feel his own independence. Of course he would be in the temple! Couldn’t they read his mind? And yet what parent hasn’t at one point or another sensed the absolute terror of losing a child, even for a moment? Such terror is born of the deepest love and sense of responsibility.
These images are but foreshadowing to the sorrowful moments of the Passion. When Mary meets Jesus on the way to Calvary (the Fourth Station of the Cross), we can only imagine how she suffered. How many parents would take the place of their children if they could- in a surgery, in a car accident, in prison? She who wants only good for her child must see him in pain, and there is little she can do to make anything better. As he hangs upon the cross (John 19:25-27), what words of encouragement and love could she offer? She cannot take away his physical pain, but she can be present. She can be with him. She does not run away in fear, but she stays with him in the suffering, even as her own heart breaks.
The sorrow of Mary receiving the lifeless body of Jesus (Thirteenth Station of the Cross) is an image of pure grief. A mother gives her own body for the life of a child to come into the world, gives her energy and time and worry and talent and creativity to bring a child to life and maturity. She gives in order that the son or daughter might have life beyond her. And how many happy memories are bound up in such sacrificial love? For Mary to receive the body of her son, lifeless, is to see her own life gone. What hope could she possibly have left at that moment? How many mothers wail for the loss of children lost too soon?
As Mary sees the body of Jesus laid in the tomb (Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56), she must let go. The finality of locking away his precious body behind a stone must have been wrenching, and yet one cannot hang on to death forever. What does this severing of physical accompaniment do to the heart of the living? We cannot know whether Mary had the slightest inkling of a possible resurrection. For the moment, it is the burying of her own heart, her own hopes.
How many of us have entered into the mystery of suffering? Why terrible things happen to good people is one of the deepest questions of human existence. For Christianity, there is no pat answer, but we know the truth of the mystery lies somewhere in the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. God became human and walked that road with us, emptied himself even unto a painful death. Since God has been there, and God is always present, we are never alone, even in the place of deepest darkness. Mary, too, has walked that road with Jesus. As we are drawn to compassion for her suffering, so her compassionate heart is with us as well.