Today is the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. Read below for Father Steve's very important reflection on this depiction of Mary.
The poet Wendell Berry reflects that for parents, the only way is hard. We who give life give pain. There is no help. Yet we who give pain give love; by pain we learn the extremity of love… In other words, it may be different in another world, but in this world, all love requires a sacrifice, and with that sacrifice there is inevitable pain. To reject sacrifice as the condition for the possibility of love is to live an essentially loveless existence.
Berry continues his reflection with this insight: I read of Christ crucified, the only begotten Son sacrificed to flesh and time and all our woe. He died and rose, but who does not tremble for his pain and loneliness, and the darkness of the sixth hour? Unless we grieve like Mary at his grave, giving him up as lost, no Easter morning comes…
The great mystery of the Incarnation is that God so desires communion with us that he allows himself to enter into the saddest and most difficult events of life. God in Christ does not exempt himself from the painful experiences of human existence. The Incarnation is a real event that happens in real flesh and blood, rather than in myth or metaphor. It involves real love and therefore very real pain. The implications of this are vast and saints and theologians have racked their brains for centuries exploring all its possibilities. Not only this, but many have been so moved by a God who would accept a human nature out of love for his creatures that they have been moved themselves to imitate his descent into our condition- seeking to serve his presence in those who represent his sufferings in their own afflictions.
The Incarnation demanded the cooperation of human agents to make it possible. If Christ was to be born into our flesh, he would have to have a mother. It is our faith that the Mother of God accepted the gift of the Incarnation in a way that was wholly singular and unique. God in Christ entered into her life with a depth and intimacy that not even those angels closest to the throne of God have known. To the worldly minded, such proximity to divine power should mean power, privilege and personal glory. But none of these things were offered, and none would have been accepted, such was the humility of the one who would be the Mother of God.
What the Mother of God did accept was the gift of being able to love God as a mother loves her only beloved Son. But this would mean, as it does for all mothers, a sacrifice- such love would engender pain. To give God his flesh from her flesh would mean that God would make his way into our world as vulnerable as we are. His joy would be her joy. But his suffering would be her suffering as well. She could not protect him from the suffering and death that would be his mission.
This is essentially the meaning of the presentation of the Mother of God as Our Lady of Sorrows. It is a dramatic display to us of the full implications of the Incarnation for the woman who loved him most in all the world.
We make a mistake if we think that because Mary is the Mother of God that this somehow meant that she escaped the more painful experiences of life. In fact, it is better to think that because of the depth of her relationship with Christ, the sad facts of life were enhanced for her rather than dulled. She experienced life knowing the full cost of humanity’s refusal to love, and saw for herself the terrible cost in the manner that her beloved Son suffered and died.
All the while in the midst of the pain filled way of the cross she trusted that God was present, even if such a presence could not be felt or offered little in the way of relief or consolation.
Each of us will at some point of our lives experience a similar desolation. Like the Mother of God, the events and circumstances of life will offer us not only love, but sorrow. In these moments the witness of the Mother of Sorrows will demonstrate to us that genuine faith is not a merely a comfort, a crutch or a diversion. Faith in Christ does not bring with it exemption from the reality of our existence but grants us access to the divine life in all things- even suffering and even death and it is through precisely these experiences that we learn the extremity of true love.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.