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) were 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 (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.”
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.1
Our Lady’s sorrows and, from a strictly human perspective, her inexplicable joy in the midst of them give 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!
1To ccommemorate the bicentennial of Cardinal Newman’s birth in 2001, Pope John Paul II used Newman’s set of meditations for the Good Friday Stations of the Cross in the Roman Coliseum.
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