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Our compassionate—and joyful—Lady of Sorrows

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.

Detail from "Our Lady of Sorrows" by Marcos Zapata (c.1710-1773; Image: WikiArt.org)

The Church throughout the world celebrates the Triumph of the Cross on September 14, and the Roman Rite fittingly follows that up the very next day with its commemoration of Our Lady 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 (cf. Luke 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 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 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 (cf. 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 (Isa 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.”

Cardinal Newman’s meditation for the thirteenth station of the cross ties all this together quite beautifully. He writes:

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.

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 Paradisi gloria.

When this earthly frame is riven, grant that to my soul is given all the joys of Paradise!

Amen.

(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15, 2018, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.)


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 213 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

2 Comments

  1. The great sign which the Apostle John saw in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, is interpreted by the sacred Liturgy, not without foundation, as referring to the most blessed Mary, the mother of all men by the grace of Christ the Redeemer (Paul VI Signum Magnum 1967) . Mary’s title Mother of God reveals her humility and suffering when called woman at Cana and from the Cross by her Son. Mary’s humble obedience to God’s will required her to divest herself of the glory of her motherhood. As such she became the most perfect vessel of his grace. When in Rome don’t do what the Romans do, at least during the Seventies when the City was rife with sensuality. Recalling the time during a visit Paul VI spoke of Mary as the model of personal sanctity, of purity. That appears a rationale for Signum Magnum. If I may add then to Fr Stravinskas’ fine article, this dolor of her emptying herself. Precisely modelled on her Son’s allegorical emptying of his divinity (Phil 2:5-8). Jesus appears cold in his demeanor toward her. Although we know after the fact that he is supremely tender [as Mary is loved for her tenderness toward us sinners]. Mentioned elsewhere I referred to a possible interpretation of Pope Francis’ reference to Jesus’ weakness. Vulnerability seemed the intended meaning. Christ’s weak spot. That when a sinner regardless of its gravity turns to him in supplication his heart melts the sin washed away. Only a being who is love itself may forgive so readily after grievous injury. As when the father runs to meet, embraces and kisses the Prodigal. Mary above all God’s creatures shares with him that rejoicing when a sinner repents.

  2. Our Lady of Sorrows is important for the defeated and vanquished. There is no joy in the Holocaust or H-bomb on Nagasaki but prayers for those in deep despair and hope in the resurrection with Our Lady of Sorrows.

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