Today, the Church recalls this sobering truth: the life of Mary of Nazareth, although filled with many joys, was underscored with sorrows beyond our imagining. Traditionally, the list of the Sorrows of Our Lady is comprised of seven.
The prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:25-35)
Mary and Joseph journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after the birth of Jesus to fulfill the requirement of the Mosaic Law — the Holy Child’s presentation to the Lord. Imagine their amazement when the aged Simeon, Spirit inspired, recognized their infant as the promised One sent to redeem Israel. Amazement became foreboding at Simeon’s chilling prediction to Mary, “… you yourself a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:35). The young Mother of barely one month would soon feel that sword’s initial thrust.
The flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13-15)
The ensuing plight of Mary and Joseph is well known – the plot to eliminate the Infant King, so threatening to Herod’s power-hungry heart. Joseph, responding to the urgent angelic message, spirited his family into a distant foreign land (Mt 2:13-15). Commenting on this Sorrow, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen states, “… Mary carrying Emmanuel [on this journey] was learning that to be His Mother meant to suffer with Him, that she may reign with Him” (The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God). Can we not equate the Holy Family’s refugee status to similar heartbreaking scenes today? Our Lady has been there; she feels the wrenching pain of displaced persons; she suffers with them.
The Child Jesus Lost for Three Days (Lk 2:41-50)
We can only imagine the trepidation in the hearts of Mary and Joseph when they realized that Jesus was not among the travelers returning to Nazareth following Passover at Jerusalem. Oh, how many ways there are for a child to be “lost” in our troubled times! Faced with the reality that a child leaves home abruptly, suffers addiction, accident, illness, criminal act, or other circumstances beyond their control, what parents could not commiserate with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph during those three interminable days? For some, days can stretch into years on end. Mary has been there; she feels the agony of such grief-stricken parents; she suffers with them.
This encounter between Mother and Son must be among the most emotionally and spiritually charged in the history of mankind. Its rendering is grippingly powerful in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. When the camera focuses on the faces of Jesus and Mary, the locking of their eyes speaks volumes. Quoting Archbishop Sheen: “Mothers, seeing their sons suffer, wish it could be their own blood instead of their sons’ that is shed.” Is such a scene not replayed daily? A mother greets the flag-draped coffin of her soldier son; another sees her son enter drug rehab, or visits him in prison – so many tragic mother-son encounters. Our Lady is with today’s mothers as they travel their own Via Dolorosa; she suffers with them.
The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (Jn 19:25-30)
Saint John places Our Lady standing at the foot of the Cross, courageous witness to Jesus’ final agonized hours of earthly life, her grief all-consuming throughout. Consider today’s mother accompanying a child through prolonged, painful medical treatments or personal tragedies; consider the inner torment of powerlessness to relieve that child’s suffering. Mary has been there; she suffers with them.
Consider also the many layers of Our Lady’s Good Friday suffering. Did she not feel keenly the abandonment of her Son by almost all of His closest companions? Does she not suffer even now at the growing number of Christ’s present-day disciples, ministers of His own Body, His Church, fleeing so far from Him by the most scandalous, egregious of acts? With each new revelation of the grossest misconduct, the prophecy of Simeon continues in its fulfillment to this day. Our Lady suffers still.
The body of Jesus taken from the Cross (Lk 23:50-54; Jn 19:31-37)
The Pieta of Michelangelo graphically conveys the overwhelming weight of this Sorrow, the reality of the body of a deceased child. Jesus’ lifeless form drapes across His Mother, resting in her loving arms. We overlook the coldness of the marble as we gaze on the face of Mary, sorrowful yet composed. She supports her Son’s body one last time in a gesture repeated so often by mourning, bereft parents today. Our Lady sits beside them; she suffers with them.
The burial of Jesus (Lk 23:50-53; Jn 19:38-42; Mk 15:42-46)
This Sorrow brought home the final thrust of the sword; the beloved body of Mary’s child was taken from her and placed in a tomb. The impenetrable stone shut Him away from her – no loving embrace, no face for her to moisten with her tears. Archbishop Sheen writes: “The most any human being ever lost in a bereavement was a creature, but Mary was burying the Son of God.” This even deeper level of Our Lady’s grief intensified its human element. Now she stands beside suffering parents at their child’s burial; she hears their keening cries; she suffers with them.
In a very real sense, Our Lady’s sorrows are never-ending. In many ways, they are more searing and painful than ever during these times of severe trial for our Church, encompassing all – sinners and sinned against; hurting, deeply troubled faithful disciples alike.
What is the message of the Sorrows of Mary?
The message must be one of love – the love of Jesus, bequeathing His Mother to each of us from the Cross; the love of Our Lady, encouraging us to keep the faith during these trying times. She teaches us that though sorrow is a permanent facet of the human condition, love – prayerful, faith-filled love – still conquers all.
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