Our Lady of Sorrows
The devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows flourished in the Middle Ages, and the hymn Stabat Mater was composed for it;
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?
For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:
She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.
O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.
Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.
Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;
Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory;
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.
A fairly miserable hymn.
Although it is officially celebrated today, the day after the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, popular devotion in many parts of the Mediterranean celebrates it with processions on the Friday before Holy Week, which in when many ways is a sensible place for it to be celebrated in connection with the day we celebrate the death of Jesus on the cross.
The feast of our Lady of sorrows is it perplexing feast. I feel with the deep pain and loss of Mary, all women for that matter, and particularly mothers in their anxiety and fears for their children, which sometimes are realised in great tragedy. I think of the poor mothers grieving in a place like Syria where children have been killed right in front of their eyes, the slaughter of the innocent .
But I’m not sure that’s what this feast is actually about. Even though the scripture reading for the day is about Mary being given as mother to John and John being given a son to Mary, the tradition of our Lady of sorrows is actually more connected to the text from Luke 2:35. This text contains the line, “and a sword shall pierce your own heart also, so that the secret thoughts in many hearts may be laid bare.”
Traditionally the sword is a symbol of truth. It cuts finer than any two-edged sword and it finds the place between the bone in the marrow. The truth is very accurate and sharp. It cuts away what is false. It leaves what is real and true. The sword exposes secrets that have been stored up within the heart.
In the Gospels we see two hearts pierced. We see the heart of Jesus being pierced open not as an act of sorrow but as an act of revealing the abundance of God’s goodness towards us. Perhaps Mary‘s heart is also opened up in this way. In any case may it be that the prophecy that her heart will also be opened by the sword may be aligning her heart with his?
Then there is the perplexing placement of the first reading from 1 Corinthians – there is one body but many parts. Each of the parts has its own special purpose and function. This reading would tell us that the feast is something about the diverse gifts of the spirit that are poured out into the Christian community, rather than the sorrows of Mary. Further it would tell us about the unity of all these parts in the Heart of Christ.
I suspect that the spirituality of the sorrows of Mary is also shaped and influenced by the satisfaction theory of atonement, by Anselm. Elizabeth A Johnson’s book, “Creation and the Cross” explains this well. This medieval feast of Mary, comes from the same feudal context as does Anselm’s theology of satisfaction. Very very simply it says, God is King and the King is all powerful, and the all powerful King sacrifices his own son, so that all of us can be saved. We must fear such a God and we must live in this exile upon earth which is a place where we must atone for our sins, even though Jesus died for us that we might be saved.
The prayer Hail Holy Queen echoes this, “ To You do we cry poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, morning and weeping in this valley of tears.” In the medieval mind this place of misery and suffering is an exile from heaven and the focus of our religious activity is to work hard to stop sinning and to be freed from this exile to return to our homeland, which is not, here but in heaven. It is a fairly miserable spirituality.
Rather if one understands the beauty of the treasures Mary has pondered and stored up in her heart, one sees that through her Heart being opened with the sword of truth, the mystery of God has been poured out into the incarnate world as a glorious creation and gift for us to share. Not despite of it. It gives us much to celebrate and much to ponder in our own hearts.
So many rich treasures to ponder in this feast day.