Our Blessed Mother Mary is known by many gracious and descriptive titles, including “The Theotokos” (The God-Bearer); Our Lady of Grace; Our Lady, Help of Christians; Our Lady, Undoer of Knots; among others—and “Mother” most appropriately. On this day, she is venerated as Our Lady of Sorrows.
It may seem rather odd to devote ourselves to a sorrowful mother. How does one find solace in a being so seemingly full of woe? But as with all things Marian, in this mode Mary of Nazareth continues to personify the perfection of humanity for us.
We should look to her not only for her premiere example of motherhood, of receptivity, and of femininity, but also an example of full humanity itself. Within her, we find the human condition par excellence, and in her person we are meant to see redeemed humanity. Indeed, today we contemplate how sorrow is part of Christian perfection.
Our Lady of Sorrows is often depicted with a tear-stained face and seven long knives or daggers piercing her heart. These seven sorrows begin with the words of the holy man, Simeon, who was present at the Presentation of Jesus.
In Luke 2:34-35 it says, “Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’”
It seems that Simeon poses two conditions for the hearts of many to be revealed: that Jesus would be contradicted and that the Mother would be pierced by a sword. For it seems that through her sorrow, the hearts of men are revealed, precisely because her penetrated heart is a mirror of the one whom she loves completely and permanently, and did from the moment of her unconditional and unrestrained “yes” to God. Her sorrow is therefore a sorrow perfectly received. It does not undermine her mission. It does not diminish or weaken her personhood. Instead, it highlights the profundity of her call as Mother, as Theotokos, and as the Help of Christians. Those who would echo her premier “yes” would soon have a share of her deep anguish, while those who refuse our precious Lord would necessarily have their hearts hardened. The sorrows of Mary become a point of departure where hearts continue to be revealed.
The other six sorrows are:
- The flight into Egypt
- The loss of the child Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem
- Mary’s meeting Jesus on the Via Dolorosa
- The Crucifixion of Jesus
- The piercing of the side of Jesus with a spear, and his descent from the cross
- The burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea
These heavy events in Mary’s life remind us that she can relate to everything we have suffered: having to leave our homes to find safety, the terror of losing track of our children, watching our beloved ones suffer or even die, and more. I imagine her losing Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem and feeling such relief when she saw him again. When they go to him, she (probably after clutching him to her breast) begins to reproach him, wondering at how he could put his parents through such a panicked search for him. Jesus says, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And in the following verses it says that Mary kept all these things in her heart. As any parent would when confronted with the truth that our children are not us. Or wholly ours.
Relating as a mother, it seems to me that every moment of Mary’s sorrow was also a moment of letting go. She searches for him after losing him for three days only to come to understand that in the temple is where he would always be found. Each of the events remind her that his mission is the same as hers inasmuch as she is, in her very person, Church—bound to both Christ’s Mystical and physical body. She is thus called to be perfectly united to him and destined to become the mother of all Christians.
Sorrow is kept in her heart to continually soften it, to the point of piercing, to allow all of mankind to pass through. And the sorrow is so great that it enlarges what sorrow means and envelopes all of the heartache that every person feels. Finding Jesus in the temple not only serves to remind Mary of Jesus’ mission, but to remind all of us that when our sufferings lead us to think that all is lost, we need only turn to the temple—both the structural temples without and the spiritual temple within—to be reunited with him again.
Even those who seemingly “have it all” are not immune to suffering and cannot escape human sorrow, for it does not discriminate based on belief or income tax bracket or address or religion. Sorrow is present in every life, and our Lady shows us that in order to rise with Christ, we must first endure the cross, and that the journey to holiness must include sorrow.
And how relevant is Our Lady of Sorrows in this annus horribilis that is 2020, where every scroll down every feed, every news flash, and every headline screams of the roiling sorrow of the world. There comes a point when the grief and fear seem too great to bear—but Our Lady waits, prays, and weeps with us, consoles us, and ultimately teaches us to persevere in hope.
We find solace beneath her mantle—not because of her solidarity with our sorrow but because of her Immaculate Heart’s ability to see past it. Her lamentations are not for what racks mankind bodily or materially. She weeps for what separates us spiritually. She is sorrowful because of the malice of man. She is sorrowful because she loves us. Her sorrow is unselfish and grounded in love, and we find consolation there because her ultimate longing is for our hearts—for all of us to be united to her son.
Until that time, we weep in sorrowful love for all of mankind, and beg the intercessory prayers of the Theotokos; Our Lady, Undoer of Knots; the Help of Christians. The Mother.